Understanding Terminology


“I consider looseness with words no less of a defect than looseness of the bowels.” (John Calvin)

Recently I was privileged to have a lively discussion on the difference between what we call the “Arminian” and “Reformed” theology. I contended that the basic point of divergence between the two systems is as follows: Arminianism believes that we save ourselves, while Reformed doctrine teaches that we can be saved only by Christ. I admitted to my discussion partner that this was, perhaps, a simplification of the issue, but suggested that in this way the lines are drawn fairly and squarely.

But this fellow felt insulted by my conclusion. He said it very plainly, “I have never heard any Christian say that he saves himself, for all Christians know that they are saved by Christ.” As a matter of fact, my discussion partner indicated that he had never really met an Arminian as I described them – a person who claimed to be Christian and yet claimed to save himself. All Christians, he said, believe that they are saved by Christ!

If this man was right, are there really any Arminians? Is there at bottom a real difference between the Reformed faith and Arminianism or are they just different ways of looking at the same thing?

We may even go a step farther in our questions: was the Reformation in the sixteenth century and the subsequent struggle in the seventeenth century between the Calvinists and Arminians worth the trouble? Do we not all, Roman Catholics, Reformed, Arminian, Baptists, etc. believe in the same Lord Jesus Christ, the Saviour of all? We may differ on certain points, but is the essence of faith not the same? Where’s the problem, really? Is it not just a matter of semantics, of terminology?

Using the same words

When I was still a young student at seminary I took a course in ancient philosophy. I will never forget one of the first things which our professor, C. Veenhof, taught us. He said, “You must always ask people precisely what they mean when they use certain terms.” For even though we may use the same words, this does not mean that we are saying the same thing. Therefore it is so very important to ask someone what he means when he employs a common concept. You must investigate someone’s terminology or you may be misled into thinking that you both espouse the same beliefs while you really do not!

Take, for example, the political scene. In the past both communists and capitalists ardently defended the concept of democracy and even call themselves “democrats” but they definitely didn’t have the same political system. History shows us that communist former East Germany, which for many years called itself the German Democratic Republic, was anything but “democratic.” And yet they used the word democracy nonetheless.

“Testing the spirits” means we must diligently investigate and accurately understand someone’s terminology. Otherwise we will be terribly misled.

It was precisely the tactic of’ the Arminians in the early 1600s in the Netherlands to use common biblical concepts and to give these concepts subtly unbiblical content. The Arminians made a caricature of the true Reformed doctrine and then attacked the caricature with the crafty use of biblical concepts adapted to their own views. Those who did not discern this were led astray.

Is this not a much used tactic or a standard method of operation? The lesson is clear; the same words do not always mean the same thing.

Saying the same thing?

Let me get back to the example of the difference between Arminian and Reformed thinking. It may seem that sometimes both are saying the same thing.

The Reformed churches teach that God in his sovereign good pleasure elects whomever He wills. We speak, then, of the doctrine of election, which states, “[God] has, according to the sovereign good pleasure of his will, out of mere grace, chosen in Christ to salvation a definite number of persons. . .” (Canons of Dort I, 7).

Arminians also employ the term “election,” for it is a scriptural concept. Except Arminianism means by election only that God sets various conditions (faith and repentance) and elects those who meet these conditions! In effect, then, we save ourselves by our own choice for God upon which God is obliged to elect us. God’s election is “sovereign” only in that He sets the conditions, but secondary in that He must choose all that meet these conditions.

The same holds true with the idea of faith. The Reformed churches teach that faith is a gift of God which He works in us through the Holy Spirit by the preaching of the Gospel. Indeed, we confess that faith is not merely offered by God to the free will of man, but is “actually conferred on man, instilled and infused in him” (Canons of Dort III/IV,14). Conferred, instilled, and infused – these are powerful verbs!

Arminianism, however, which also uses the term “faith” means by faith the decisive act of man by which he appropriates the salvation offered by God unto himself. God may gently persuade people to believe, but the final decision is up to every individual and not to God! In effect, then, we save ourselves by our voluntary and decisive act of believing.

All this becomes very acute when we look at the term grace. The Reformed churches understand “grace” to mean the free gift of God by which He enables us to be born again and come to faith. God gives this “saving grace” only to those whom He has chosen in Christ. He does not owe this grace to anyone and gives it to whom He pleases (Canons of Dort, III/IV, 15). The grace of God is invincible, which means that we may try to resist it, but God in his almighty power causes his perfect will to prevail over our sinful will.

Arminianism also uses the term “grace.” But again, Arminianism means something quite different with this word. Grace is at best the common grace which God has given to all people. It is this common grace, this “light of nature” left in man after the fall, by which he can gradually gain a greater grace, this is, saving grace. This means that all people – since all share in this “grace” – have the same possibility of being saved. Our salvation depends on the manner in which we use this existing grace to climb up to higher and better things. In effect, then, we save ourselves by using this grace that is common to all people. We do this in part by God’s “gentle persuasion” but mostly by exercising our own free will.

What about Jesus Christ?

How does Christ function in all this? The Reformed doctrine teaches that He performs the entire work of salvation (1 Cor 1:30). He gives us justification, sanctification, and glorification through His death on the cross, and imparts this to us by His power as resurrected Lord!

We have everything in Christ alone. The whole package of salvation is given to us in Christ Jesus!

By contrast Arminianism states that Christ’s death has only changed the conditions by which we are saved. Through Christ it is now possible for all people to be saved. But the acquiring of this salvation depends on whether we exercise our free will to use God’s grace and accept the benefits acquired by the death of Christ. Christ has by his death only opened the door; we have to slip through the open door on our own accord!

There are many who regularly use concepts such as election, faith, and grace, and ascribe their salvation to Jesus Christ, but, in fact, their whole system of thought places the human act in the centre as being decisive. God only gives the opportunity in Christ, but ultimately we save ourselves. Many people do not even discern the flaw in this system of thought for they do not bother to question the terminology used.

Do all Christians really believe that they are saved only in Christ?

Carefully discerning the truth

Despite all the humble words, Arminianism is at bottom a self-glorifying system which does not fully base assurance on God’s perfect work but in part on our imperfect deeds. Therefore in Arminianist thinking, one can never be really sure of salvation! John Wesley, the consummate English Arminian, even taught that we can fall out of the state of perfection back into sin! There is no certainty of salvation until we hear the Judge’s own words on the great day.

I’m not bashing any religious group; I never do. And I am not called to make judgment on anyone’s salvation. I have only contrasted two different systems of thought on the basis of some key words used by both.

My point is to demonstrate that not everyone who uses the same words means the same thing. We must learn to distinguish carefully, to inquire further, and to discern truth from un-truth. Otherwise we may be taken in by something which we hold for truth but is really a subtle distortion of the truth.

It is the task of Reformed journalism to help promote the proper understanding of key concepts, not just in social political and economic matters, but also in matters of true faith.

by Clarence Stam

(This article was published in Reformed Perspective, March 2007)