The debate over the will between Calvinists and Arminians focused on whether fundamentals of Christian theology, such as regeneration and election, are dependent on the free choice of man or whether they are dependent wholly on the freely given grace of God apart from any works of man.


These debates were carried out after the death of Calvin between various Calvinist theologians and Jacobus Arminius and those who sided with him, notably leading to the Synod of Dort. The Remonstrants, as they were called, denied that God’s grace was given based on God’s unconditional election of individuals to salvation. Instead, election was based upon God’s foreknowledge of what choice man would freely make, ultimately making regeneration contingent on man’s decision. Calvinists, on the other hand, taught that God chose those to whom he would give faith in eternity past, rather than foreseeing who would have faith on their own. Therefore, spiritual regeneration preceded the choice of the will for the Calvinist, while for the Remonstrant, the choice of the will in faith preceded the benefits of salvation.

It is often assumed that the debate between Calvinists and Arminians was a 16th century debate between John Calvin and Jacob Arminius. Many are surprised when they discover that Arminius was only a small child when Calvin died. The debate between Calvinists and Arminians took place at the end of the sixteenth century and beginning of the seventeenth century, and it did not merely concern Arminius but certain Remonstrants (objectors, protestors) and the reaction of the Synod of Dort.

Jacob Arminius and Conditional Grace

Nevertheless, Arminianism bears the name of Jacob Arminius (1559–1609) for good reason. Arminius studied not only at the University of Leiden but also, ironically enough, at the Geneva academy under Calvin’s successor, Theodore Beza. Later, he became a pastor in Amsterdam and his sermons on Romans revealed a different understanding of divine grace than taught by his teachers back in Geneva. He created a stir, for example, when he came to Romans 9 and denied that Paul taught an unconditional election of individuals to salvation. This caught the attention of certain Reformed theologians.

In 1603, Arminius joined the faculty at the University of Leiden. While at Leiden, Arminius entered into fierce debate with Franciscus Gomarus, also a student of Theodore Beza. Gomarus accused Arminius of Pelagianism, and claimed Arminius was out of step with Reformed doctrinal standards, such as the Belgic Confession (1561) and the Heidelberg Catechism (1563). Reformed thinkers like Gomarus believed Arminius’s synergistic view of grace did not match the monergistic emphasis characteristic of these Reformed standards.

Synergism conditions the effectiveness of God’s grace on the sinner’s will to cooperate and believe. A prevenient grace may be given to the sinner, mitigating the effects of original sin. Nevertheless, whether the sinner is ultimately born again is contingent on man’s decision in this in-between-state. God may seek to woo the sinner, but ultimately God’s grace is conditioned on the sinner’s will. Hence faith logically precedes regeneration for the Arminian, and man’s will is capable of resisting and defeating God’s saving effort.

Monergism, by contrast, argues that man is dead in sin, incapable of cooperation, his will being enslaved to the power of sin, the world, and the devil. God and God alone must raise the dead sinner to spiritual life and liberate him from bondage. Only upon regeneration will man then be able to turn from sin and turn to Christ. Hence regeneration must logically precede faith in salvation. Even still, the faith that follows regeneration is itself a sovereign gift, one the Spirit does not merely offer to the sinner but effectively works within so that the sinner will believe and receive eternal life.

These two views stem from two different conceptions of election. For example, in his Declaration of Sentiments (1608), written just before he died, Arminius not only conditioned regeneration on the will of man, but election as well. God’s choice was conditioned on whether he foresaw man choosing to believe. Foreknowledge of man’s faith is the determining factor in whether man is elected. By contrast, Reformed theologians in Arminius’s day, and those going all the way back to Calvin, argued that Scripture never conditions God’s election on something in man or something man can do. Election, instead, is based on God’s grace alone (sola gratia). Man is not elected because he believes, but he believes because God elects him out of his eternal mercy and grace. “So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy” (Rom. 9:16).

The Synod of Dort and Unconditional Grace

In the decade ahead, the tension grew as followers of Arminius remonstrated against their Reformed counterparts. At the start of 1619, the issue came to a head as a synod, or gathering of church leaders, was called and Reformed pastors and theologians were invited in order to judge the matter for churches in the Netherlands. But Dutchmen were not the only ones to attend; Reformed thinkers from around Europe travelled to be present, including men like Gisbertius Voetius and William Ames.

They assembled at Dort (or Dordtrich) to evaluate the Remonstrance according to the Scriptures. After hearing the Remonstrants, the synod responded with several canons. Historian Richard Muller describes these canons, noting their continuity with the Reformed standards that preceded Dort:

The Canons of Dort ought to be viewed as a magisterial interpretation of the extant Reformed confessional synthesis: they condemn predestination grounded on prior human choice; they deny a grace that is both resistible and acceptable by man; they affirm the depth of original sin, argue a limited efficiency of Christ’s work of satisfaction and stress the perseverance of the elect by grace … None of these views modifies the earlier Reformed position—indeed, virtually all of these points can be elicited from Ursinus’s exposition of the Heidelberg Catechism.

The canons were adopted April 22, 1619 and published the very next month. But to understand the canons, let’s consider them one by one.

Canon 1

The first canon concerns election, yet it begins with man’s depravity. In Adam, all people are guilty and corrupt; all deserve divine judgment and condemnation. Should God have left mankind in this state, he would have been just to do so. Much in contrast to the Arminian logic, the real mystery is not why God chose some instead of others, but why God chose any at all. Man deserves nothing but eternal punishment.

With man’s inability in full view, Dort emphasizes that only God’s “sheer grace” in election can be our hope.

Before the foundation of the world, by sheer grace, according to the free good pleasure of his will, he chose in Christ to salvation a definite number of particular people out of the entire human race, which had fallen by its own fault from its original innocence into sin and ruin. Those chosen were neither better nor more deserving than the others, but lay with them in the common misery. He did this in Christ, whom he also appointed from eternity to be the mediator, the head of all those chosen, and the foundation of their salvation. And so he decided to give the chosen ones to Christ to be saved, and to call and draw them effectively into Christ’s fellowship through his Word and Spirit. In other words, he decided to grant them true faith in Christ, to justify them, to sanctify them, and finally, after powerfully preserving them in the fellowship of his Son, to glorify them. God did all this in order to demonstrate his mercy, to the praise of the riches of his glorious grace. As Scripture says, God chose us in Christ, before the foundation of the world, so that we should be holy and blameless before him with love; he predestined us whom he adopted as his children through Jesus Christ, in himself, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, by which he freely made us pleasing to himself in his beloved (Eph. 1:4–6). And elsewhere, Those whom he predestined, he also called; and those whom he called, he also justified; and those whom he justified, he also glorified (Rom. 8:30).

Notice, it is because election is based on sheer grace alone, that everything that follows must be as well. It is because election is unconditional that God’s call of his elect must be effectual and his preservation of his elect certain. As Dort goes on to state, it is because our election depends not on us, not even in the slightest, that we can have assurance. Should our salvation be contingent on us, our assurance would waver. But our assurance is grounded in the unchanging, eternal grace of our merciful God.

Canon 2

Election may be an eternal reality, but it is never divorced from Christ. Even in the paragraph above, notice how often it says we have been chosen in Christ, echoing Paul in Ephesians 1. It follows, then, that what God decreed in eternity he accomplishes in history. Those he elected he sent his Son to purchase on the cross.

The atonement, therefore, cannot be for all people without exception (universal atonement) but must be specific to God’s elect. That is not to undermine the value of Christ; as Dort explains, it is of “infinite value and worth, more than sufficient to atone for the sins of the whole world.” Nevertheless, God did not choose all but only some. Therefore, the Father sent his Son to lay down his life efficiently for his elect, though his elect may be from every nation on earth. “In other words, it was God’s will that Christ through the blood of the cross (by which he confirmed the new covenant) should effectively redeem from every people, tribe, nation, and language all those and only those who were chosen from eternity to salvation and given to him by the Father.”

Since Dort, some have labeled this belief limited atonement, since Christ dies only for his elect. But that label may be misunderstood, and potentially places the emphasis in the wrong place. Unless one believes in universalism (all are saved), the atonement is always limited. For the Arminian, it is not limited in its scope, but it is limited in its effectiveness. Whether Christ’s death is effective is conditioned on whether or not the sinner will cooperate with divine grace (synergism).

But Dort rejects such a restriction. Christ does not die to make salvation a mere possibility but an actuality. Those for whom he dies really have their sins atoned for and all the benefits to be had in union with Christ have been purchased for them, faith included. For that reason, it may be better to use the labels particular atonement or definite atonement. Yes, the atonement is limited to God’s elect, but its particular focus on the elect exhibits the efficacy of the atonement for God’s elect, lest the cross be emptied of its power.

Canons 3 & 4

We need not dwell very long on Canon 3 since so much was said already. In Canon 3 Dort moves from the redemption Christ accomplished for the elect to the redemption the Spirit applies to the elect. As with previous canons, Dort begins by stressing man’s utter inability due to original sin. Needed then is a supernatural work of the Spirit to regenerate the sinner, and that is something God alone can accomplish.

And this is the regeneration, the new creation, the raising from the dead, and the making alive so clearly proclaimed in the Scriptures, which God works in us without our help. But this certainly does not happen only by outward teaching, by moral persuasion, or by such a way of working that, after God has done his work, it remains in man’s power whether or not to be reborn or converted. Rather, it is an entirely supernatural work, one that is at the same time most powerful and most pleasing, a marvelous, hidden, and inexpressible work, which is not lesser than or inferior in power to that of creation or of raising the dead, as Scripture (inspired by the author of this work) teaches. As a result, all those in whose hearts God works in this marvelous way are certainly, unfailingly, and effectively reborn and do actually believe. And then the will, now renewed, is not only activated and motivated by God but in being activated by God is also itself active. For this reason, man himself, by that grace which he has received, is also rightly said to believe and to repent.

Canon 5

If God has chosen us in eternity not on the basis of anything in us but according to his sheer grace, and if he has sent his Son to die for his elect, purchasing all the salvific benefits they have in Christ, and if the Spirit is sent by the Father and the Son to cause man to be born again so that he is united to Christ in faith, then surely this triune God will preserve his elect to glorification, not failing to complete that which he started. Dort concludes, then, by giving the believer assurance that God will not lose any of his elect but preserve them to the end.

That does not preclude the need for perseverance, however, but only establishes it, providing the grace needed to finish the race. That means, then, that preservation and perseverance are two sides of the same coin. Better yet, it is because God preserves us that we can then persevere by his grace and for his glory.

Should this assurance to perseverance make us proud? Not at all. Instead, it should be an incentive to authentic godliness and humility.

This assurance of perseverance, however, so far from making true believers proud and carnally self-assured, is rather the true root of humility, of childlike respect, of genuine godliness, of endurance in every conflict, of fervent prayers, of steadfastness in crossbearing and in confessing the truth, and of well-founded joy in God. Reflecting on this benefit provides an incentive to a serious and continual practice of thanksgiving and good works, as is evident from the testimonies of Scripture and the examples of the saints.

The Doctrines of Grace

This is but a small dose of Dort’s robust treatment of what we today call the Five Points of Calvinism. To see these points in all their exegetical, biblical beauty, however, one must read them firsthand. One will not only discover a robust affirmation of the doctrines of grace but be pleasantly surprised by how often Dort draws implications for the Christian life. This is a reminder that those who assembled at Dort wrote these canons not merely for scholars and pastors, but for churchgoers, so that they might know sovereign grace for themselves and its transforming effects on the Christian life.

Further Reading

This essay is part of the Concise Theology series. All views expressed in this essay are those of the author. This essay is freely available under Creative Commons License with Attribution-ShareAlike, allowing users to share it in other mediums/formats and adapt/translate the content as long as an attribution link, indication of changes, and the same Creative Commons License applies to that material. If you are interested in translating our content or are interested in joining our community of translators, please reach out to us.

This work is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0