Antinomianism and Reformed Arminianism

, posted by Richard Clark

This original article can be found at the Helwys Society Forum: http://www.helwyssocietyforum.com/antinomianism-and-reformed-arminianism/

Some may be tempted to think the following: Since Reformed Arminians teach that apostasy may occur only by the renunciation of faith, then antinomianism (a lifestyle characterized by sin) is compatible with final salvation in Reformed Arminian theology. This correlation is simply not the case. The person may never have been saved. Additionally, a person that was saved through saving faith, confessing Christ as both Lord and Saviour, may have apostatized through an implicit renunciation of faith.

Reformed Arminians do not teach that mere intellectual assent to the gospel truth is the same thing as saving faith. So, if a person were to move from saving faith to mere intellectual assent, would that be the same—soteriologically speaking—as moving from saving faith to atheism or some other religious tradition, in a word ‘unbelief’? Many Free Will Baptists have pointed out that the sin of unbelief is ultimately the cause of apostasy, even though other sins can lead one to that point. They have also admitted that unbelief is not always explicit but is sometimes implicit (implied).[1]

A person could take up a lifestyle of sin to the point that their faith is an afterthought; in other words, they have forgotten God. One might abandon his or her faith for another, or he or she might simply abandon the faith through an explicit decision (atheism, religious conversion, or agnosticism) or implicit forgetting (antinomianism). I have provided some statements from Reformed Arminians below to show that antinomianism has no refuge in their theology.

Arminius, Pinson, and the Renunciation of Faith

From the outset we should mention that Jacob Arminius himself alluded to the notion that unbelief is the ground of apostasy. He wrote, “And at one time I certainly did say, with an explanation subjoined to it, ‘that it was possible for believers finally to decline or fall away from faith and salvation.’ But at no period have I asserted, ‘that believers do finally decline or fall away from faith or salvation.’ . . . It being impossible for believers, as long as they remain believers, to decline from salvation.”[2]

In the context of discussing apostasy, Matthew Pinson writes, “What causes one to lose his salvation? Failure to continue in faith. . . . Unlike some eternal securitists who teach the doctrine (called ‘antinomianism’) that since one is justified by faith he may persist in a life of sin, Free Will Baptists cry out, One cannot persist in a life of sin and expect his relationship with God to continue.”[3] He goes on to explain that a lifestyle of sin leads to a renunciation of faith.[4] In personal conversations, Pinson has expressed to me that he understands this renunciation to be implicit sometimes. The quotation above should make clear that he would deny that genuine saving faith and a lifestyle of sinfulness are compatible.

Picirilli and Faithlessness

Robert Picirilli and Leroy Forlines are probably the most influential theologians grounding the Reformed Arminian movement beyond Arminius, Thomas Helwys, and Thomas Grantham. In his book on discipleship in 2013, Picirilli discussed sin in the life of the believer:

This is the problem we encounter when some who are overly enthusiastic for “salvation by grace” insist that so long as a backslider has not openly and deliberately renounced Christ, he is saved. There are many things wrong with that. . . . Those who are born again do not live in sin. . . . It may be that the person’s subsequent failures indicate that he or she was never saved. . . . Or it may be the person has forsaken the Lord.[5]

In both contexts Picirilli was discussing someone that would probably claim to be a Christian or to have been a Christian. He also denied that the renunciation of faith needed to be open and deliberate—we might say “explicit.” This position came right on the heels of Picirilli arguing, in Grace, Faith Free Will (2002), that apostasy is ultimately caused by the sin of faithlessness.[6] One might argue that he simply changed his mind, but, even in this earlier work, he admitted that a life “characterized by sinful practice” is incongruent with regeneration. He did not deny that a Christian could fall into such a lifestyle and still claim to be saved. So, he was implying that the renunciation from faith can be implicit or a matter of forgetting God.[7]

Forlines, Presumptuous Sin, and Turning from Faith

Leroy Forlines admitted that Christians apostatize through presumptuous sin, but he explained that this action is different from sins of ignorance and weakness. To reinforce his point, he drew a parallel between Hebrews 10and Numbers 15.[8] He even explained that apostasy through presumptuous sin is such that “unbelief is manifested in the sin.” Again, the sin that ultimately causes apostasy, in his view, is unbelief, but an arrogant and defiant lifestyle of sin manifests this unbelief that was the result of persisting in unrepentant sins of ignorance and weakness.[9] He later expressed that saving faith is not the same thing as mere assent.[10] So, one can draw from this argument that a person could move from saving faith to mere assent and, therefore, apostatize from faith.

Forlines affirmed that “tampering with sin” could lead to a renunciation of saving faith.[11] Despite the fact that he thought that one could apostatize through presumptuous sin, he still claimed that a turning from faith is the only means of apostasy.[12] So, he clearly thought that, in the end, the former reduces to the latter. He asserted that, most of the time when people sin presumptuously, they were never saved to begin with, but the key word in this proposition is most.[13] Importantly for Forlines, however, a lifestyle of presumptuous sin that manifests unbelief follows the unbelief. Yet the renunciation of belief (whether explicitly or implicitly) is a presumptuous sin.

To summarize, the act of unbelief itself is a presumptuous sin, and tampering in the sins of weakness and ignorance usually precedes the act of unbelief. But it is this act of presumptuous sin (the turning from saving faith) that causes apostasy, which manifests in a lifestyle of sinfulness.[14]Forlines wrote, “To say that a backslider is not lost means to some people that a person could be saved and then fall into the worst conceivable state of sin and still be saved. This is absolutely false.”[15] He concluded, “I use the term apostasy to refer to shipwreck of faith in the broad sense. It is what a person leaves, not what he goes to that counts.”[16]

Conclusion

I have no doubt that these authors would admit that a turning from saving faith to antinomianism would be no different, from a salvific standpoint, than turning from saving faith to atheism, agnosticism, or some other religion. In the end, to use a bit of hyperbole, one does not need to make a public announcement (even to one’s self) that they have abandoned the faith to abandon it. In conclusion, my treatment of Arminius, Pinson, Picirilli, and Forlines demonstrates that Reformed Arminianism does not teach the compatibility of antinomianism and final salvation.

About the Author: Richard E. Clark earned his Master of Arts in theology from New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary and is a PhD candidate in theology at the University of Manchester, U.K. He holds two adjunct instructor positions outside of Nashville. The first is at Welch College in theological studies. The second is in philosophy at Volunteer State Community College. His major areas of research are in the philosophy of religion and Arminian theology.


[1] You could be an apostate and not think you are, just as you could think you are a Christian even though you are not; it is no different.

[2] James Arminius, The Writings of James Arminius, trans. James Nichols and W. R. Bagnall (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1956), 1:281.

[3] J. Matthew Pinson, A Free Will Baptist Handbook: Heritage, Beliefs, and Ministries (Nashville, TN: Randall House, 1998), 67–68, emphasis his.

[4] Ibid., 68–69.

[5] Robert E. Picirilli, Discipleship: The Expression of Saving Faith (Nashville, TN: Randall House, 2013), 194–95, emphasis mine.

[6] Robert E. Picirilli, Grace, Faith, Free Will: Contrasting Views of Salvation; Calvinism and Arminianism (Nashville: Randall House, 2002),197–233. In this work, he calls his theology Reformation Arminianism. In personal discussions, he has assured me that he does not intend for this designation to be thought of as different from Reformed Arminianism.

[7] Picirilli, Grace Faith Free Will,204–08.

[8] F. Leory Forlines, The Quest for Truth: Answering Life’s Inescapable Questions (Nashville, TN: Randall House, 2001), 269–302, 467–88.

[9] Ibid., 280–85.

[10] Ibid., 295.

[11] Ibid., 296.

[12] Ibid., 280–98.

[13] Ibid., 299.

[14] Ibid., 300–01.

[15] Ibid., 301, emphasis his.

[16] Ibid., emphasis his.