My initial exposure to Arminian theology came when a friend challenged me to read Jacobus Arminius’ works. Having been taught that he was both Socinian1, and Pelagian2, I was surprised how Calvinist his affirmations sounded about trinitarianism, Scripture, original sin and the necessity of grace.
Mark Ellis, translator of The Arminian Confession of 1621
You Can Buy His Three Volume Work on Amazon…
I have a friend who occasionally comes to me slightly exasperated because of things he reads and conversations he has where opponents of Arminianism have done a poor job of representing it by disparaging it. He often says to me, “I doubt they have actually read Arminius’s writings.” To be clear, I have no doubt there are occasions where this happens in reverse and people like me do Calvinism a disservice, but as an Arminian I feel his pain. What Mark Ellis states above is not rare I would imagine.
One of the most common accusations that I hear is that Arminianism devalues God’s grace, sovereignty and glory and is man-centered and man-dependent because it teaches that men have a choice in the salvation process. I could give enough examples just from Twitter to make your head spin, but I’m not aiming to focus too much on the attacks as I am the truth.
It is my goal to explain why I’m often confused by this based on the teachings of Arminius himself, his dedicated followers after him, and those who have taught the theological system to me lo these many years. Honestly, we should focus on what we have in common as Christians. Additionally, in the words of Timothy Keller, “If your opponent wouldn’t agree with the accuracy of your statement about their beliefs, then you should not say it.” This is a reminder for all of us, me included, to do that. Disagreement is healthy if done well.
Arminius in His Own Words
When Arminius speaks for himself, the brand of systematics that bear his name tend to sound less and less man-centered and dependent and more similar to what Calvin himself taught. Here are a few examples3:
1. Man’s free will is impotent and entirely useless apart from God4.
The free will of man towards true good is not only wounded, maimed, infirm, bent, and weakened; but it is also imprisoned, destroyed and lost. And its powers are not only debilitated and useless unless they be assisted by grace, but it has no powers whatsoever except such as are excited by Divine grace.Arminius
Man is not capable, in and of himself, either to think, to will or to do that which is really good; but it is necessary for him to be regenerated in his intellect, affections, or will by God in Christ through the Holy Spirit, that he may rightly understand, esteem, conceive, will and perform whatever is good.Arminius
It is these quotes that help me understand and see Arminian agreement with Romans 9:14 that “It does not depend on man who wills or runs, but on God who has mercy.”
2. Grace is the absolute and sole basis of salvation:
This doctrine [sola gratia]…establishes the grace of God, when it ascribes the whole praise of our vocation, justification, adoption and glorification, to the mercy of God alone and takes it entirely away from our own strength, works and merit.Arminius
His dedicated following kept this teaching prominent after his death. In their articles in 1610 they wrote, “That man has not saving grace of himself, nor of the energy of his free will, inasmuch as he, in the state of sin, can of an by himself, neither think, will nor do anything that is truly good (such as saving faith eminently is); but that it is needful that to be born again of God to Christ, through his Holy Spirit…John xv.5: ‘Without me ye can do nothing.’”
3. The entire process of salvation, including faith, is a gift.
Man cannot have [faith] of himself.Arminius
It is very plain, from the Scriptures, that repentance and faith can not be exercised except by the gift of God.Arminius
The act of faith is not in the power of a natural, carnal, sensual and sinful man…no one can perform this act except through the grace of God.Arminius
So the issue of what “it” is in Ephesians 2:8–“it is the gift of God” can be agreed upon by Arminians and Calvinists alike. Grammatically and systematically we can agree that “it” refers to the entire process of salvation. The difference lies in Arminians believing that gifts can be rejected and there not being any ‘goodness’ in accepting a free gift, especially in a case where a person has a $20 million dollar debt that a rich king pays (Matthew 18:21-35).
4. God’s Will is not in any way subject to man’s will.
I place in subjection to Divine Providence both the free will and the action of a rational creature, so that nothing can be done without the will of God, not even any of those things that are done in opposition to it.Arminius
As the Gospel is purely gracious…[It] excludes every cause which can possibly be imagined to be capable of having proceeded from man, and by which God may be moved to make this decree.Arminius
The Arminian has no issue with John 6:44 saying that no one comes to Jesus unless the Father draws him.
And again, his followers, from the Five Articles of the Remonstrants of 1610, Article 1: “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 me, to save in Christ, for Christ’s sake, and through Christ, those who through the grace of the Holy Spirit, shall believe on this his Son Jesus..”
Sounds of grace, the preeminence of Christ, and God’s complete sovereignty ring through their words.
5. Grace keeps us in Christ throughout the salvation process.
I ascribe to grace the commencement, the continuance and the consummation of all good, and to such an extent that its influence, that a man, though already regenerate, can neither conceive, will nor do any good at all.Arminius
That this grace of God is the beginning, continuance, and accomplishment of all good, even to this extent, that the regenerate man without prevenient or assisting or awakening grace can neither think, will nor do good; so that all good deeds or movements must be ascribed to the grace of God in Christ.Remontrants, Article 4
Also worthy of note (as I have mentioned elsewhere) is that Arminius never expressed a decided conviction in the possibility of apostasy. Modern Arminians do, fairly and scripturally (in my opinion), but we do well to acknowledge that Arminius’ view on grace in this doctrine was much closer to Calvin that the two sides are today.
There is no doubt that many Calvinists understand these differences and still disagree. I respect that. Free will is still part of the difference. It just doesn’t rob God of grace, sovereignty and glory as much as is presented at times. To illustrate it a tad simplistically, Calvinism sees salvation as a drowning man who is unconscious5 and is saved by a hero pulling him from the water; Arminianism sees salvation as a unconscious drowning man struggling where the hero swims out to him, arouses him and extends a rescuing hand6. If the man takes the hand and is saved, I don’t personally see how that devalues the grace of the act or the glory of the hero. It certainly doesn’t mean that the drowning man worked for his salvation. Similarly, choosing faith in the Bible is the opposite of doing works. They are mutually exclusive7.
Finally, there are other ways that I think the two systems are closer than we recognize sometimes, notably in Arminius’s explanation of what the atonement actually accomplishes, but that is worthy of an essay by itself and will be explored hopefully at a later date and perhaps with the erudite perspective of REO’s David Lytle.
Editor’s Note: David Lytle did indeed write a follow up article titled “Five Amazing Truths About Election On Which Every Christian Should Agree“.
- Socinianism denies the full deity of Christ, predestination, original sin, total inability (of man to convert himself) the atonement as a penal satisfaction, and justification by faith alone. ↩
- Pelagius denied original sin and taught that man can freely choose good or evil without God’s assistance. ↩
- All Arminius quotes can be found in The Works of Arminius (3 Vol.) while the source material for his disciples words are noted within the article ↩
- Please note that I am intentionally not using terms like “prevenient grace,” “total depravity,” etc. because I aim to explain and not use words with connotations that may cause confusion. ↩
- Or at its most accurate, a man who is dead in the water and miraculously revived, which is a biblical word picture Arminianism can also agree with ↩
- Another big difference of course being that Calvinism sees it as the hero saving only who he wants for his own reasons and saving all that he chooses to while Arminianism sees the hero wanting to save everyone but only saving those who take his hand ↩
- No matter how it sounds or appears we all can agree that it is what the Bible teaches that matters and as an Arminian I believe God chooses to save those who stop struggling in the water trying to save themselves and accept the heroic hand of grace; in other words, he saves the humble (2 Sam 22:28/Psalm 18:27; 2 Chron. 12:12, 34:27; Psalm 138:6; Proverbs 3:34; Is. 57:15; Matthew 5:3-5, 18:4, 23:12; Luke 18:9-14; James 4:6; 1 Peter 5:5). ↩