What Is Arminianism?

Arminianism, named after Jacobus Arminius, is a reaction to the theology of John Calvin and Theodore Beza concerning God’s sovereignty, the depravity of fallen man, election, the extent of the atonement, the grace of God, and the perseverance of the saints. The theology of Arminianism is set forth in the Articles of Remonstrance in opposition to the Belgic Confession. The Synod of Dordt was convened in 1618 in response to the theology of Arminianism and condemned it as contrary to Scripture. The Synod of Dordt is where the so-called “Five Points of Calvinism” come from. But there is so much more to Calvinism than just five points. These five points are simply the negation of the Five Articles of Remonstrance.

Arminianism is not the same thing as Pelagianism which teaches that God’s grace is not absolutely necessary for salvation since we are all born into the world innocent as Adam was. Arminianism acknowledges the doctrine of original sin and the necessity of the work of the Holy Spirit for sinners to respond to the gospel. Whereas Calvinism teaches that man is totally unable to respond to the gospel apart from the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit, Arminianism teaches that God enables sinners to believe the gospel through prevenient grace without guaranteeing their response to the gospel. The concept of prevenient grace states that God’s grace precedes and enables men to believe in the gospel by means of their free will, but it does not effectually result in regeneration as in Calvinism’s teaching of irresistible grace. It is what enables all men to make a free will response to God in spite of the fall.

But what many of those who use this concept do not realize is that it is Roman Catholic in origin. The Council of Trent taught concerning justification:

“The Synod furthermore declares, that in adults, the beginning of the said Justification is to be derived from the prevenient grace of God, through Jesus Christ, that is to say, from His vocation, whereby, without any merits existing on their parts, they are called; that so they, who by sins were alienated from God, may be disposed through His quickening and assisting grace, to convert themselves to their own justification, by freely assenting to and co-operating with that said grace: in such sort that, while God touches the heart of man by the illumination of the Holy Ghost, neither is man himself utterly without doing anything while he receives that inspiration, forasmuch as he is also able to reject it; yet is he not able, by his own free will, without the grace of God, to move himself unto justice in His sight” (Session 6, Chapter 5).

This is why the theology of Arminianism was accused of being a road back to Rome by the heirs of John Calvin.

Concerning the doctrine of election, Arminianism teaches that God’s election is based on his foreknowledge of who will believe. Election then is not unconditional as in Calvinism but conditioned upon their free will response to the gospel. Another Arminian take on election is that it is corporate in nature rather than individual. God does not elect some individuals and pass over others, but has chosen Christ to be the head of his people and those who believe in him become part of the elect. They were not among the elect before they believed, but became part of the elect as a result of their faith. God has chosen this group to be saved, but not the individuals within it. This corporate view of election is the Arminian view that open theists have to believe in because they do not believe God knows the future. If God does not know the future, then his election cannot be based on his foreknowledge of who will believe.

The argument that God’s election is based on his foreknowledge of who will believe is based primarily on Romans 8:29: “For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.” But “foreknew” here is the foreloving of God, or God choosing to set his love upon these people. The only other occurrence of the verb in Romans is in 11:2: “God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew. Do you not know what the Scripture says of Elijah, how he appeals to God against Israel?” Foreknowing here is not God having future knowledge about Israel, but the setting of his love upon them to be his chosen people. A similar use of the verb “to know” is Amos 3:2: “You only have I known of all the families of the earth; therefore I will punish you for all your iniquities.” It is Israel alone who is known by God in this intimate way. Jeremiah 1:5 also uses “knew” to refer to God’s choosing of Jeremiah before he was born. Adam’s “knowing” of his wife Eve was his loving of her (Gen 4:1). Another parallel use of the verb is 1 Peter 1:20 which describes the foreordaining of Christ by the Father: “He was foreknown before the foundation of the world but was made manifest in the last times for your sake.” Foreknowing in Romans 8:29 is a verb of action that God exercises upon these people, not the passive reception of knowledge about them. Just as he actively calls, justifies, and glorifies them, he actively foreknows them which begins the golden chain of redemption. It is not knowledge about persons, but the active knowing of persons themselves. Those whom he foreloved, he predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son.

Because God in Arminianism has not chosen a specific group of people to be saved through Christ, they believe the atonement was designed by God to make salvation possible for all men by making them saveable. Christ by his death created the possibility of salvation for all men to which they must respond in faith to actualize the benefits of the atonement. In contrast, Calvinism states that Christ actually secured the salvation of those he died for. These are the elect whom the Father has given to the Son and therefore only their sins were imputed to Christ on the cross. Many Arminians reject penal substitutionary atonement because they realize that such a view of the atonement only makes sense in the context of Calvinism where Christ actually pays the penalty of the sins of those he dies for and therefore the extent of the atonement would have to be restricted to those who are saved to avoid universalism. The Arminian J. K. Grider writes in the Evangelical Dictionary of Theology that Arminianism the penal substitution are inconsistent with each other:

“A spillover from Calvinism into Arminianism has occurred in recent decades. Thus many Arminians whose theology is not very precise say that Christ paid the penalty for our sins. Yet such a view is foreign to Arminianism, which teaches instead that Christ suffered for us. Arminians teach that what Christ did he did for every person; therefore what he did could not have been to pay the penalty, since no one would then ever go into eternal perdition. Arminianism teaches that Christ suffered for everyone so that the Father could forgive the ones who repent and believe; his death is such that all will see that forgiveness is costly and will strive to cease from anarchy in the world God governs. This view is called the governmental theory of the atonement” (97-98).

When it comes to whether a Christian can lose his salvation, Arminianism teaches that our security is conditioned upon our obedience to Christ. This is known as conditional security as opposed to eternal security. A true Christian who has been justified and born again by the Holy Spirit can apostatize and fall away from a state of justification. Arminians are forced into believing this because they believe that the ultimate reason why a person is saved is because of the free will decision of those who are justified. Because it was their free will that got them saved, their free will must be able to get them out of salvation in order for them to have libertarian free will. The most popular verse used in favor of conditional security is Hebrews 6:4-6 which I have written about elsewhere. This is also why Arminians have historically believed in theological inclusivism so that man’s free will can be the determinative factor in whether or not he is saved rather than the location and timing of where he was born which is outside of his control.

For a critique of Arminianism, see John Owen’s A Display of Arminianism and John Gill’s The Cause of God and Truth.

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