Calvinism vs Arminianism on the Atonement

I have recently finished reading Roger Olson’s book on Arminian Theology. For those who do not know, this book describes exactly what classical Arminians believe. Classical Arminians are those who follow the teachings of Arminius closely. I was also able to look the history of the Synod of Dort to discover the nature of the atonement in Calvinist theology. This is my attempt to fairly and accurately compare the two systems in their beliefs on the nature of the atonement.

Arminians believe that the death of Christ atoned for absolutely everyone’s sins. This is sometimes referred to as universal atonement. Nonetheless, everyone is not saved. The atonement must be applied to a person in order for them to be justified. Since faith is the condition for justification, atonement will only be applied to those who believe. This atonement is applied when someone believes.

The Calvinist objects to such a doctrine in two different ways. One set of objections are Biblical and the other set are philosophical. The Biblical objections are appeals to passages that claim that God has saved believers through the cross, that unbelief is a sin, and that the faith of the believer is a gift of God. If Christ died for someone’s sins, then it will be applied to them at some point. The philosophical objections are appeals to consistency both inside the Calvinist and Arminian pictures of the atonement. Calvinist beliefs require denying universal atonement and Arminian beliefs about atonement require denying that Christ intended to fully save anyone or affirming universalism.

Calvinists believe that the death of Christ paid for the sins of some particular people and provided all of the necessary means for them to be saved. This doctrine is known as the doctrine of particular redemption (or limited atonement). Whether the death of Christ also had benefits for others is a matter of debate. Since Christ intended to save those particular people, and provided all of the means necessary for their salvation they will be saved. Therefore, God will apply that redemption to them, giving them faith and justifying them. This atonement is applied when someone is saved. (To claim that it is applied at birth because someone is elect is heresy.)

Arminians object to this doctrine for both Biblical and philosophical reasons. Biblical reasons are those passages which say that Christ died for the world or for all men. They simply believe that this passages indicate that Christ died for absolutely everyone. The philosophical reasons are appeals of consistency in both Calvinist and Arminian pictures of the atonement. The doctrine of particular redemption is inconsistent with the love of God and the justice of God. The doctrine of universal atonement is consistent with both.

As far as I know, both the descriptions and objections are accurate. I have not included all objections to each view. I have also not explained how each view fits into the each system. I am willing to hear further, distinct objections in addition to what I have already put forth. I am also willing to hear about corrections to the description of a view, provided that you actually believe it or can point to a proponent of the view who describes it that way. Since this is a description rather than a defense, please avoid Bible quotations or references.