How Calvinist are You?

Mark Heath, 9 Jan 2004

I have recently been discussing the age old issue of Calvinism and Arminianism1 with some of my friends. I am of a Calvinist persuasion myself, but I am beginning to see that there is a broader range of opinions within those two groups than I had originally realised. As I tried to think of analogies that would help me explain my views to an Arminian friend, I stumbled on the idea of a chess match. Whilst it is by no means a perfect analogy, I think it is very flexible in demonstrating the spectrum of viewpoints in the questions of "who gets the credit" and "who makes the choice" that surround this issue. Here I present six scenarios that represent different views. I would love to hear back from those of you who read this which one you feel is closest to the Biblical teaching (or present an alternative scenario if necessary).

The Divine Chess Game

Imagine a chess grand master is teaching a student and challenges this student to a match. In our analogy, the grand master will be God, and the student represents an individual human. The student winning the chess match shall represent salvation. Now we realise straight away that the student has no chance (or near enough no chance) of winning the match unless the grand master provides some help. So a Calvinist perhaps already does not like the analogy, since it is still technically possible for the student to win, however unlikely. Probably the ardent Calvinist would like the student to start out with only one piece - the king - so that it is technically impossible for him to win. Nevertheless, we will stick with our analogy of a normal chess match for now.2

Scenario 1

In this scenario, the impossible happens - the student beats the grand master. The grand master played to the best of his ability but was still beaten. Of course, the student has something to boast about - he has won the chess match purely by his own effort and skill and can rightly claim all the glory for himself. This scenario represents a doctrine of salvation by works. The trouble is, no one really holds this view3, so we would be wasting our energy arguing against it. The Bible will not countenance a salvation that allows man to boast and ascribes no glory to God4.

Scenario 2

In this scenario, the grand master deliberately makes some poor moves to give the student a chance. He also, before the game, gives the student some tactical advice that will stand him in good stead to take advantage of these poor moves. The student takes this on board and wins the game. Now we have a slightly more interesting situation. The student cannot claim all glory for himself - some credit has to be given to his teacher. However, there is still an opportunity for boasting for the student. This is perhaps a more realistic picture of a historic doctrine of salvation by works. God does his part, and we do our part - most of the glory to God, but some of the glory to ourselves as well.

Scenario 3

So now we fine tune the model a bit more and say that the grand master makes a deliberate bad move that opens up the way for the student to win with his next move. Not only that, but the grand master says to the student "You can win with your next move". Now all the student has to do is spot that move and make it. Now we would not be too impressed with that student boasting about having beaten a grand master. Virtually all the credit goes to the teacher, but the student could possibly say "Well at least I spotted the right move and made it". This is quite close to the Arminian position. God did all the hard work but it is man's responsibility to seize the opportunity. The reason one person is saved and another isn't is down to their individual response to that opportunity.

Scenario 4

So are we ready for Calvinism yet, or are there even more shades of possibility? Suppose we modify the previous scenario so that the grand master not only indicates that the game can be won in the next move, but tells the student what that move is. Now we are close to Calvinism, because we have removed the last opportunity for boasting - the student can hardly claim that they won the game due to their own ability. However, there is still the element of choice retained, for the student could have made a different move (although it would be madness to do so). We could perhaps refine this scenario further and suggest that our student is such a novice that he can't see how the winning move is actually going to win the game. He makes it in faith that the grand master is telling the truth. Now I imagine that there are not a few Calvinists who feel that even this scenario doesn't go far enough. If it is God's sovereign choice that we will be saved (predestination), how then can we allow a scenario which includes the possibility (however unlikely) of someone God has 'called' refusing the offer of salvation? Perhaps we must refine the model one step further yet.

Scenario 5

In chess, the game is won when your opponent has no moves left. It is however possible to be in a situation where you only have one legal move. Imagine that the grand master manages to work the pieces into a situation where he manages to leave the student with only one possible move. And guess what - that move will win the game for the student.5 Now do we have all the required conditions for Calvinism? No boasting for the student and no opportunity for the student to fail to win? Now I feel that this scenario should make virtually all Calvinists happy, and we still have action on the part of the student who has to physically move the piece and make the declaration "check mate". The Arminian, who probably didn't like scenario 4, will definitely object now - God is "coercing" you to do something against your free will. The Calvinist could at least respond that although the student had only one move available, he hardly felt coerced as it was a move he gladly made.

Scenario 6

So one last scenario for the really ardent Calvinists. This is scenario 5 again, but in this case our student is so inept that he is not capable, even with instruction, of picking up the appropriate piece and moving it to the correct place. The grand master picks up the student's piece and moves it for him. For some Calvinists, unless we understand that we were "dead" in our sins, we cannot understand salvation. So they would like the analogy best of all if the grand master is playing against a dead student!


Now obviously I have not here presented a case for the views above other than brief comments on them. I expect that most people reading this document will be familiar with the traditional verses held up in favour of the respective viewpoints. However, I am interested in where the line must be drawn. Can a Calvinist subscribe to Scenarios 4 or 5? Or is anything less than 6 to be declared as dangerous Pelagianism? Here I summarise what I have come to believe and then decide where at least I fit onto the scale.

Where does this put me on my scale? I feel torn between scenarios 4 and 5. The analogy breaks down at this point, because in scenario 4 the grand master does not know (for 100% certain) whether his student will choose to make that move. So perhaps I can say that I am scenario 4 but with the caveat that the grand master does know for sure that the student will take the suggested move.

Thanks for reading this. I hope it has stimulated you to evaluate your view on the basis of Scripture. Please email me and let me know which scenario you think is the best. If I get enough responses, I will add a list of votes for each scenario to this page.


1 If you are lost already, let me try to explain it simply.

An Arminian believes that anyone is able to be saved, it is down to their free will to choose to be so. True, God takes all the initiative in calling us and drawing us, but the final choice rests with us. Hence the "elect" are simply those who God knew in advance would take him up on his offer of salvation. Their concern is to emphasise God's love - a loving God would surely not force people to choose him, or damn those who had no opportunity to respond. This is one of the most powerful arguments of Arminian teachers that wins over many people against the more harsh sounding Calvinist perspective.

A Calvinist strongly repudiates the idea of anyone making a contribution, however small to his own salvation. God chooses in advance who will be saved (the elect) for reasons of his own and calls them in such a way that they cannot help but accept. Those who are not elect are simply not capable of responding to the gospel. Their concern is to emphasise God's glory - all of the credit must ultimately go to God for salvation.

2 I realise that the analogy has lots of failings and may prove confusing to some (my wife certainly did not find it too enlightening!). We are of course not in competition with God for our salvation and he in no way makes mistakes (even deliberately) to help us attain salvation.

3 Or at least, not as far as I know. I am not an expert in 16th Century Roman Catholic doctrine or in first century Christian Judaisers but I think that both would probably subscribe to scenario 2 in preference. In any case, this type of approach is referred to as Pelagianism.

4 Eph 2:8,9 and probably Rom 3:27.

5 This would of course be a very bizarre state for a chess game to get into, but I think it should be possible. I leave it as an exercise for the chess loving reader to discover it.

6 Eph 2:4,5 picking up again the important point that we were dead and God made us alive - a metaphor that leaves no room for our own contribution. In John 6:44 Jesus emphatically states the inability of man to come to God without at least some divine intervention.

7 Even in an Arminian scheme that stresses my free will, I cannot get round the fact that God made me with my own particular temperament and intellect and placed me in the family and circumstances I am in, none of which I have any control over.

8 I suggest this is also why these two doctrines are not so clearly stated in Scripture and even in some cases appear to be contradicted. Offering salvation to all and warning against falling away should both be part of a Calvinist's regular teaching as they are both clearly found in the New Testament. They are both necessary simply because from a human perspective we have no way of telling who is elect and who isn't. We're not even supposed to try and find out. We can simply know assurance for ourselves, not just by experience of the Sprit or even by promises of Scripture but also by living out the life of a saved person and not falling away (2 Pet 1:10).

9 See also Acts 13:48 where Luke paints the other side of the picture - God's sovereignty emphasised rather than human responsibility