Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Providence, Part IV: Arminianism

This is part 4 of my series on providence. Table of contents:
  1. Introduction and apology
  2. A brief history of the soteriological debate
  3. Overview of Calvinism
  4. Overview of Arminianism
  5. Comparing, contrasting, and evaluation of Calvinism and Arminianism
  6. The Biblical data
     6.5. Interlude: The God Who Seeks Us
  1. My position on providence
  2. Applications of this position to the soteriological debate
  3. Practical applications and conclusion
Disclaimer: All of the views expressed in this post, unless stated otherwise, are what I perceive to be the views of Arminianism, and not my own.

And on to the counterpoint of Arminianism. The alternative theology is largely based on the writings of the Dutch theologian Jakob Hermanszoon (latinized to Jacobus Arminius), and also (its followers would argue) the early Augustine and Paul himself. Born four years before Calvin's death, Arminius was dissatisfied with the theology of predestination taught by Calvin's followers and so developed his own. The year after his death, in 1610, his followers, known as the remonstrants, published the Articles of Remonstrance, the points they wished to clarify with the mainstream reformed tradition, and which were later met by the Canons of Dort which became the five points of Calvinism. Though Arminianism has never been as widespread or influential as Calvinism, it has remained as an alternative ever since, being held by the revivalist John Wesley and the Methodist church he founded.

A simple summary of Arminianism is that it is a synergistic view of predestination and salvation that focuses on the goodness and benevolence of God to all. "Synergistic" means "two-handed"; Arminianism believes that while God is the author and perfecter of our salvation, he extends the gospel offer freely to all and gives them the responsibility to accept or reject it. This responsibility of resisting or not is the role humans are given in their salvation. Arminians would answer the question, "why is everyone not saved?" with "Because not everyone believes."

For years I didn't think the five Articles of Remonstrance had a handy acronym like TULIP, but I found one: FACTS.

Freed by Grace (to Believe)
Atonement for All
Conditional Election
Total Depravity
Security in Christ

Once again, going through the points (in logical order rather than acronym order):

Total Depravity

Though Calvinists and Arminians don't hold exactly the same view on total depravity as I foolishly assumed before, it is the point on which they hold by far the most common ground. Both would affirm that humans are fallen, separated by sin from God, unable to make themselves righteous. Both hold that, though in our natural state we can do good works, these works ultimately count nothing towards being justified. Both would agree that total depravity is extensive (affecting every part of the person) but not intensive (humans are not as evil as they possibly can be). In fact, most of the scripture I cited for the Calvinist view of total depravity applies here as well. The third Article of Remonstrance reads:
That man has not saving grace of himself, nor of the energy of his free will, inasmuch as he, in the state of apostasy and sin, can of and by himself neither think, will, nor do anything that is truly good (such as having faith eminently is); but that it is needful that he be born again of God in Christ, through his Holy Spirit, and renewed in understanding, inclination, or will, and all his powers, in order that he may rightly understand, think, will, and effect what is truly good, according to the word of Christ, John xv. 5: "Without me ye can do nothing."
What differences exist are largely results of the theologies' differing perspectives on free will. Though I will cover this in more depth after the five articles, Arminianism holds a different view of free will, an "incompatibilist" or "libertarian" view, which states that an action is only freely done if the agent could have acted otherwise. Because of this, while Arminianism holds that while fallen man is incapable of knowing the things of God or desiring Him, the pre-salvation work of the Spirit (referred to as "prevenient grace") restores him enough to be able to freely accept of reject God's proactive calling to salvation by the same spirit. Arminius writes:
What then, you ask, does free will do? I reply with brevity, it saves. Take away free will, and nothing will be left to be saved. Take away grace, and nothing will be left as the source of salvation. This work [of salvation] cannot be effected without two parties--one, from whom it may come: the other, to whom or in whom it may be wrought. God is the author of salvation. Free will is only capable of being saved. No one, except God, is able to bestow salvation; and nothing, except free will, is capable of receiving it.
Atonement for All (Unlimited Atonement)

Unlimited atonement states that because God loves everyone in the world and wants them to be saved, He sent His son Jesus Christ to die for the salvation of everyone without exception. However, while God has provided for the salvation of everyone, He has conditioned our receiving it on faith so Christ's death is only applied to those who believe. The second Article of Remonstrance says:
That, agreeably thereto, Jesus Christ, the Savior of the world, died for all men and for every man, so that he has obtained for them all, by his death on the cross, redemption, and the forgiveness of sins; yet that no one actually enjoys this forgiveness of sins, except the believer, according to the word of the Gospel of John iii. 16: "God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life"; and in the First Epistle of John ii. 2: "And he is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world."
As Calvinists point out, in this view Christ's death made salvation possible for all but did not automatically save anyone. By sending Jesus to die for the sins for everyone, God is able to offer salvation through faith to everyone and apply it to all who believe. It is important for Arminians that this gospel offer be real and sincere for everyone, rather than only for the elect.

I have already mentioned most of the verses Arminians use to back this doctrine up in the post on Calvinism; namely, all the verses using universal language like "world" and "all" that Calvinists interpret in a different, more limited sense. Arminians take these verses at face value, and also note that the verses that speak of Jesus dying for "us", "the church", etc. do not say that Jesus died only for the church, but that the people of the church are those who have received these blessings by faith. Verses that say Jesus died "for many" could just as easily mean "for all" as they could "a specific subgroup". Verses which speak of Jesus' intent in coming (Luke 19:10, 1 Timothy 1:15) actually play right into unlimited atonement; "Jesus came into the world to save sinners", presumably without exception.

Also, Arminianism justifies this doctrine with verses that speak of God's intent to save all people, such as 1 Timothy 2:4 and 2 Peter 3:9 as well as Ezekiel 33:11 and 18:32 which state that God has no pleasure in the death of sinners, or of anyone for that matter. If God wishes all people to come to salvation, it is absurd to suggest that He would not make provision for everyone to be saved.

The other pillar of scriptural support is the body of verses that talk about people for whom Christ died dying or being destroyed: Romans 14:15, 1 Corinthians 8:11, 2 Peter 2:1. Also see the stern warning against apostasy in Hebrews 6:4-6. I will get more into the defense of these verses in the section on believers' security, but they seem clear on the fact that it is possible for those Jesus died for to ultimately be destroyed--not everyone Jesus died for will be saved.

The primary Calvinist objection to this doctrine is that it says that it is possible for Jesus to die for someone and that death to amount to nothing. To which an Arminian might reply, "Yes, apparently it is." They might also add that God's plan does not consist a priori in the definite salvation of certain individuals, but in extending salvation to everyone to accepts His offering it by faith.

Freed by Grace (to Believe) (Resistible Grace)

Once Jesus has died to make salvation available to everyone, the doctrine traditionally known as resistible grace states that God freely extends the offer of this salvation to everyone without exception by His spirit. His prevenient grace restores their fallen will enough for them to freely respond to this offer either by accepting or rejecting it. The offer of salvation is conditional on faith; no decision to believe in Jesus, no salvation. God exercises His sovereignty in the extension of this conditional offer to everyone. The fourth article of remonstrance reads:
That this grace of God is the beginning, continuance, and accomplishment of an good, even to this extent, that the regenerate man himself, without that prevenient or assisting, awakening, following, and co-operative grace, can neither think, will, nor do good, nor withstand any temptations to evil; so that all good deeds or movements, that can be conceived, must be ascribed to the grace of God in Christ. But, as respects the mode of the operation of this grace, it is not irresistible, inasmuch as it is written concerning many that they have resisted the Holy Ghost—Acts vii, and elsewhere in many places.
This doctrine is a direct logical result of unlimited atonement and the Arminian perspective on free will.  God has sovereignly decreed to make salvation available to all by faith and to extend that offer to everyone. However, because we are always free to do otherwise than we do, we are therefore free to accept or not accept this offer; we are not inevitably compelled to accept it in any way.

Now it might be worthwhile to mention another part of the Arminian perspective on human nature, as F. Leroy Forlines points out. Arminianism looks at interactions between people (or God and people) in an "influence and response" pattern rather than the "cause and effect" pattern of Calvinism. Because of how He has made us, God can offer the gospel to us and influence us to accept it in numerous ways (the inward calling of the spirit, external preaching, reason, emotional appeals), but He cannot cause us to believe.

Another corollary of this is that Arminianism puts the step of regeneration, being "born again", after the faith decision, not before, as the first step in the process of sanctification.

One of the main verses supporting this doctrine is, as alluded to in the article, Acts 7:51, where Stephen says the Jews "always resist the Holy Spirit", showing that it is possible to do so. Much of the other support is closely tied in with the next point, conditional election, focusing on how the offer of salvation is repeatedly conditioned on our faith, as well as with unlimited atonement; if everyone is called to salvation, it follows that those who are not saved successfully resisted this call.

Conditional Election

Just as unconditional election is arguably the linchpin of Calvinism, so conditional election is for Arminianism. I think it's significant that the FACTS article puts it after the doctrine on the atonement rather than before, however; Arminianism strongly associates the person of Christ with election, believing Calvinism separates the two. Conditional election states that God has foreknown who would and would not believe in Christ and has decreed to save precisely those who do. The first Article of Remonstrance reads:
That God, by an eternal, unchangeable purpose in Jesus Christ, his Son, before the foundation of the world, hath determined, out of the fallen, sinful race of men, to save in Christ, for Christ's sake, and through Christ, those who, through the grace of the Holy Ghost, shall believe on this his Son Jesus, and shall persevere in this faith and obedience of faith, through this grace, even to the end; and, on the other hand, to leave the incorrigible and unbelieving in sin and under wrath, and to condemn them as alienate from Christ, according to the word of the Gospel in John iii. 36: "He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life; and he that believeth not the Son shall not see life; but the wrath of God abideth on him," and according to other passages of Scripture also.
Among Arminians, there are two different perspectives on conditional election. The individual view, which is generally the sentiment of the article above, simply says that God sovereignly predestines those individuals He foreknows will believe in Jesus in a manner otherwise similar to the predestination of Calvinism. The corporate view says that God has predestined to save the redeemed and purchased bride of Christ, the church, and all those who belong by faith to that body will be saved. Either way, the result is the same: people are elect because they believe, not the other way around. The distinction is that God foreknows the faith of the elect, rather than foreordaining it to cause them to believe.

The scriptural support for this doctrine looks at many of the verses commonly cited by Calvinism and notes the distinction between foreknowledge and foreordination, or predestination. Arminianism holds that God does not predestine people to believe, but predestines because of foreknown belief. Romans 8:29-30 specifically gives foreknowledge as the condition of predestination. 1 Peter 1:1-2 also mentions people being elect "according to the foreknowledge of God". The understanding is that this foreknowledge is God foreknowing people for all eternity either as believers or as nonbelievers and deciding to save them based on their foreseen response to the gospel of Christ.

Again, conditional election is very consciously Christ-centered, and it is the universal teaching of scripture that salvation is conditional on faith in Christ (John 3:16, many others). Ephesians 1:3-14 makes conspicuously frequent use of the preposition "in him" (Christ) while describing our salvation. Jesus makes the association undeniably clear in Luke 7:50, where he tells a woman, "Your faith has saved you; go in peace." Not "God has elected to save you so I will" or even "God has saved you on condition of your faith", but simply "Your faith has saved you". Forlines concludes that "if salvation is conditional now, it necessarily leads to the conclusion that election in eternity past was conditional. The burden of proof is on those who think otherwise."

Security in Christ

The last point corresponds to Calvinism's last point. It holds that just as we are led to believe in Christ and saved because of that belief, by faith we also have assurance of our continued salvation save from anything that would seek to harm it; God enables us to persevere the way He called us, by the Spirit. There is not an agreement among Arminians as to whether God is able to prevent believers from losing their faith and falling away; the last Article of Remonstrance deliberately leaves this issue open:
That those who are incorporated into Christ by a true faith, and have thereby become partakers of his life-giving Spirit, have thereby full power to strive against Satan, sin, the world, and their own flesh, and to win the victory, it being well understood that it is ever through the assisting grace of the Holy Ghost; and that Jesus Christ assists them through his Spirit in all temptations, extends to them his hand, and if only they are ready for the conflict, and desire his help, and are not inactive, keeps them from falling, so that they, by no craft or power of Satan, can be misled, nor plucked out of Christ's hands, according to the word of Christ, John x. 28: "Neither shall any man pluck them out of my hand." But whether they are capable, through negligence, of forsaking again the first beginnings of their life in Christ, of again returning to this present evil world, of turning away from the holy doctrine which was delivered them, of losing a good conscience, of becoming devoid of grace, that must be more particularly determined out of the Holy Scriptures before they can teach it with the full persuasion of their minds.
So the key difference or disagreement with Calvinism is whether it is possible for a believer to lose faith and therefore the salvation that is conditioned on that faith. (The popular belief of "Once saved, always saved", that we are assured of salvation when we believe no matter what we do or believe afterwards, is not seriously held by either side) The possibility that God is able to prevent this does fit with the Arminian view of free will; just as we are unable to move toward God until His prevenient grace allows us, by His grace he might also make us unable to remove ourselves from His presence once we are there. I believe the consensus among most Arminians is that it is possible to fall away.

In response to verses which speak of the eternality of the life Jesus gives, the Arminian interpretation says that this eternal life belongs to Jesus, and by faith and union with Him we share in it. If we lose that faith, the connection is severed and the eternal life is no longer ours to enjoy, though it is certainly still Christ's.

In response to verses like John 10:28-29, which says that Jesus' "sheep" will never perish, Forlines brings up John 3:36, which says that "He who does not believe the Son shall not see life." Obviously this warning is conditional on the person continuing in unbelief, and if he comes to believe, it will no longer be true. Conversely, John 10:28 then says that whoever is saved in Jesus will never perish as long as the condition for salvation (faith) is still met.

The last promise in v28, "and no one will snatch them out of my hand", says that it is impossible for any external power to destroy anyone's salvation, but does not preclude that person from removing himself from relationship with God. The promise in Romans 8:35-39, if it is talking about the same thing, can also be answered by this, though it also may simply be an awesomely strong affirmation of the unconditional and unchanging nature of God's love for those who are in Christ.

Meanwhile, there are also the "apostasy" verses mentioned under unlimited atonement which speak of people for whom Christ died being lost or destroyed. The foremost of these is Hebrews 6:4-6. In the Arminian view the people spoken of in this passage were indeed saved, and if they fall away, they are worse off than they were in their original fallen state, for they have lost all hope of coming again to repentance. (This "falling away" is likely the "blasphemy against the Holy Spirit" spoken of by Jesus in Matthew 12:31, a deliberate rejection of Jesus with full knowledge of Him and the work of the Spirit; see my post from a few months ago) See also Hebrews 10:26-29, 2 Peter 2:20-22, and Colossians 1:21-23. The emphatic and repeated nature of these warnings against falling away is only justified if there is a real possibility of it happening.

A criticism of this doctrine leveled by Calvinists is that an assurance of salvation that is conditioned on something we do is no assurance at all--as if God simply leaves us to fend for our faith after it is ours. The Arminian view does not say that we go to hell if we have unconfessed sin, or go through a period of doubt or even serious sin. The "falling away" being discussed here is a willful, serious, and settled (not careless or accidental) rejection of God and severance of relationship with Him that leads to loss of salvation because of loss of faith. Arminianism (or the greater part of it) holds that this is possible for believers because it is warned against repeatedly; Calvinism believes it is not.

Free Will

As mentioned above, the Arminian view on free will is libertarian (an act is only free if the agent could have done otherwise) and incompatibilist (incompatible with determinism). Some more extreme Arminians in the Molinist and open theist camps take this view of free will far enough to limit God's omnipotence or omniscience with it, but mainstream Arminianism states that though God perfectly foreknows our actions, He does not compel or determine them in any sense, and they really are free.

And again, as Forlines puts it the big difference between Calvinistic and Arminian views of free will is that Calvinism sees God's interactions with people in a cause-and-effect model, whereas Arminianism uses an influence-and-response model. God cannot "cause" anyone to believe, though He can powerfully influence. It is precisely this freedom from external causation that is meant by "freedom to do otherwise". If an action was predetermined, certain, or compelled to happen, it wasn't really freely chosen regardless of whether the agent desired it.

Romans 9

This Arminian interpretation of Romans 9 comes largely from Forlines' book; it is by far the best non-Calvinist explanation of the chapter I have ever read. The first five verses, again, speak to Paul's deep concern for the salvation of his fellow Jews. But the interpretation of verses 6-13 diverges widely. The Calvinist interpretation of this section emphasizes Paul's argument for the unconditionality of God's "purpose of election", independent of any qualities of the individuals, and mentions that it is also individuals who are being considered. But the Arminian interpretation focuses on the individuality of the election and denies that it is about the Calvinist interpretation of unconditional election at all.

This interpretation is based on historical, rather than Biblical, context. The prevailing view among Jews at the time was that they had all been unconditionally, corporately elected to salvation under the old covenant, and also, somewhat contradictorily, that their remaining in this covenant was somehow conditioned on their continued obedience to the law. Paul's emphasis in verses 6-13 is the individuality of God's election, because the Jews would never see their need for Christ if they believe they were already saved corporately. Paul had to convince them of the reason some Gentiles, and not all Jews, were being saved, and that reason was that election is individual and not corporate.

Paul's purpose in 6-13, then, is summed up in the statement in verse 6, "For not all who are descended from Israel are Israel." In 7-13 he is reminding the Jews of something they already accept, that not all the descendants of Abraham, the original recipient of the old covenant, are part of that covenant. This section is not speaking about salvation at all, but only of inclusion in the old covenant. If the Jews had a broad and narrow usage of the designation "Covenant Seed", then, Paul said, there was no reason why there couldn't be a broad and narrow usage of the term "Israel". Again, his point here is not the condition of God's election, but its individuality.

The Calvinist interpretation holds that the objection Paul is answering in verse 14 is that God is unjust to elect people unconditionally. Arminianism would say that the objection is simply to the idea that not all Jews are corporately elected. Again, the Jews already believed they had been unconditionally elected over all the other nations, so they would not have had trouble accepting the idea of unconditional election per se. And if Paul's argument were simply that God had unconditionally elected some, rather than all Jews, what relief would that have been to them? Paul has simply been trying to get the Jews to set aside their belief that they were unconditionally, corporately elected.

Verse 15 is said to not be a defense of God's righteousness, which was not up for debate with the Jews, but another proof from the Old Testament that election is individual. The expression "I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion" is to be taken not as an affirmation of unconditional election but as evidence that God has conditioned salvation on faith in Christ; He wills to have mercy (in an eternal sense) on those who believe. Again, verse 16 is not a proof text for unconditional election but a denial of salvation by works and the idea that man can, by anything in him, obligate God to save him. Forlines writes, "Rather, it is God who has obligated Himself by His very righteous commitment to His promises, to save the person who believes." Paul is also is turning his attention to the other part of the Jewish line of thought, that their works of obedience to the law were somehow a condition for salvation.

The interpretation of verses 17-23 is somewhat predictable at this point. It takes all the statements of God's freedom that Calvinists use to argue unconditional election and, rather than drawing conclusions there, ties them in with the condition God has given for salvation, namely faith in Jesus Christ. It is people who know Jesus that God wills to have mercy on, and people who do not that He wills to harden.

After that verses 25-26 are the flip side of 6-13 (some Gentiles will also be saved by faith), and 27-29 are a reaffirmation of his argument that not all Jews will be saved, but only those who accept Jesus. Finally, 30-33 make his point clear: election is not decided corporately by nation, but individually by faith. Some Gentiles have attained this righteousness that is by faith. (v30) And why did some Jews not attain this righteousness? Because God sovereignly passed them by in His purpose of election? No, because they pursued this righteousness by works rather than by faith (v32).

So the Arminian interpretation of Romans 9 sees it as largely speaking about individual rather than corporate election, as well as refuting the idea of salvation by works held by the Jews. Though it does not affirm either unconditional or conditional election, but can easily be read from a perspective of conditional election by asking "On whom does God will to have mercy?" rather than simply taking verses 16, 18, etc. to mean unconditional election.


As I mentioned in the previous post, the prevailing view among Arminians about the order of God's sovereign decrees is sublapsarianism, which orders them:
  1. To create the world and all in it.
  2. To permit the fall.
  3. To give His son Jesus Christ as an atoning sacrifice for the elect.
  4. To elect some up out of their sin to eternal life, and to leave the others along with the devil and his fallen angels to their punishment.
  5. To apply by the Spirit this redemption for their salvation.
It only differs from infralasparianism in that it places election after the appointment of Jesus as savior rather than before, fitting with conditional election's emphasis on the saving work of Jesus Christ rather than on God's decision.

In Summary

In parallel with my summary of Calvinism, I would say that the positive focus of Arminianism is a God who sincerely and unconditionally loves His wayward children, desires for them all to be saved from their death by His just punishment, and offers a means in the person of His son Jesus Christ for this to happen. At every stage God makes Himself available to people and takes the steps to initiate a saving relationship with them, but does not violence to the freedom He has given them and leaves room for their freely chosen response even while remaining in sovereign control of all things.

Arminianism, then, chafes at any attempt to impinge on the goodness of this view of God, any suggestion that He does not really desire everyone to be saved or does not truly offer salvation to everyone. It is equally (if not more) repulsed at any line of thinking that implicates God as responsible in any way for sin or evil, which it holds to be the sole product of fallen men and angels.

Ways Calvinists Misunderstand Arminianism

First, Arminianism does not deny that God is sovereign over all things. It merely denies that this control is "meticulous" as Calvinism claims, i.e. that God is always in control in a cause-and-effect sense. God can still be sovereign without being the "primary cause" of everything that happens. It also does not try to constrain God by human behavior or limit His freedom to do as He wills, but only affirms that He has constrained Himself by His promises, namely to have mercy on those who believe in Christ. Affirming that God has constrained Himself is not judging God by human standards, but by His own promises.

Arminianism does not believe in salvation by works; it affirms the Biblical teaching that contrasts salvation by faith by salvation by works and affirms that God has made faith the condition (but not the ground, which is the Atonement) of salvation. It is on the ground of Christ that God makes the offer of salvation real; faith is simply the condition He has set for receiving that offer.

Arminianism is not focused primarily on human agency or ability, and it certainly does not hold the semi-Pelagian view that man is able to initiate his relationship with God. People know God only by responding to the gospel offer He extends to them through the calling of the Spirit and are enabled to accept only by prevenient grace. As the above summary explains, Arminianism is more concerned with the perfect goodness of God than with defending human free will, the theology of which is partially determined by belief in this goodness.

And lastly, Arminianism certainly does not deny predestination or place free will as an alternative to it. The belief that predestination and free will are mutually exclusive held more by Christians-at-large, who rarely examine it closely, than by theologians; in my church I often hear jokes along the lines of "Did I decide to say that or did God predestine it?" which express this perceived dichotomy. Arminianism affirms that God does elect individuals to salvation and only disputes on the nature of this predestination.

One other sentiment I hear from Calvinists that I don't think is fair is when they ridicule conditional election by contrasting God "looking down the corridor of time" to decide whom to save when making His decision with simply predestining people independent of anything about them. This kind of language seems to assume that God is bound to move in time along with His creation, as if His knowledge of the future, though complete, were somehow less real or useful than what He currently "knows". Arminianism believes in the eternal, transcendent nature of God as a timeless being just as much as Calvinism does; He knows the future because He is present in every moment of history, not because He can peer down the "corridor of time".

Recommended Reading/My Resources

Classical Arminianism, by F. Leroy Forlines
Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities, by Roger Olson
Arminius Speaks, edited by John D. Wagner
And the articles and resources at

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