Arminians are Christians, Barely

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In the introduction to his book, Willing to Believe: The Controversy over Free Will, R. C. Sproul, Sr., when asked if he thinks Arminians are Christians, answers, “‘Yes, barely.’ They are Christians by what we call a felicitous inconsistency.”1 He agrees with J. I. Packer and O. R. Johnston, who insist that Arminians, because they reject the (unproven and eminently philosophical) theory that regeneration must precede faith, they “thereby deny man’s utter helplessness in sin, and affirm that a form of semi-Pelagianism is true after all.”2 This is the reason, so the authors are convinced, that “Reformed theology condemned Arminianism as being in principal a return to Rome (because in effect it turned faith into a meritorious work) and a betrayal of the Reformation (because it denied the sovereignty of God in saving sinners . . .).3

Calvinists rightly believe that all sinners inherently lack any ability to know or understand “the depths of God” (1 Cor. 2:10 NRSV), or the natural ability to “receive the gifts of God’s Spirit,” or “understand them because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Cor. 2:14 NRSV). The unregenerate do not “submit to God’s law — indeed [they] cannot” (Rom. 8:7 NRSV). However, for the Calvinist, the only solution to the sinner’s desperate plight is strict monergistic regeneration. Packer and Johnston explain: “The sovereignty of grace found expression in their [the Reformers’] thinking at a profounder lever still, in the doctrine of monergistic regeneration — the doctrine, that is, that the faith which receives Christ for justification is itself the free gift of a sovereign God, bestowed by spiritual regeneration in the act of effectual calling.”4 If a Christian does not hold to this theory, then he or she is charged with advocating “self-reliance and self-effort.”5

By posing these statements thus, Calvinists have hedged themselves in their own convenient niche, declaring all other believers as unorthodox, heterodox, or as Packer, Johnston and Sproul have it, “un-Christian” or “anti-Christian.”6 Either one holds to strict monergism (i.e., that regeneration precedes faith), or one holds to heresy.

First, evangelical faith, in Arminianism, is championed as a gift of God, and cannot in any sense be a “work” of one’s own doing. By definition, however, faith cannot be viewed as a work, for the apostle Paul argues that, “to one who without works trusts him who justifies the ungodly, such faith is reckoned as righteousness” (Rom. 4:5 NRSV). Faith is not a work. Therefore, strict monergism (i.e., that regeneration must precede faith) is a superfluous theory at best. Arminius explicitly states: “Faith is a gracious and gratuitous gift of God, bestowed according to the administration of the means necessary to conduce to the end; that is, according to such an administration as the justice of God requires either towards the side of mercy or towards that of severity.”7 What Calvinists cannot abide is his following statement: “It is a gift which is not bestowed according to an absolute will of saving some particular men: For it is a condition required in the object to be saved, and it is in fact a condition before it is the means for obtaining salvation.”8 For the Calvinist, God cannot merely enable an individual to believe, but must cause a sinner to believe through regeneration. Thus a person is actually saved (regenerated) to faith, not by faith, which is contrary to explicit biblical teaching (Eph. 2:8).

Second, Arminianism advocates initial monergism. The Holy Spirit is sent out by Christ Jesus to “prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment” (John 16:8 NRSV). No one asks to be convicted by the Spirit of God. This work is monergistic. The proactive power and grace and action of God is meant to lead the sinner to repentance (Rom. 2:4). Yet, nowhere in Scripture are we taught that God’s intention or purpose is to monergistically regenerate His unconditionally elect, so that they can then believe in Christ Jesus. More to the point, Scripture teaches the exact opposite, making strict monergism a man-made, Scripture-contorting, God-dishonoring doctrine.

Scripture teaches that all who first receive Christ Jesus as Lord and Savior are then given the right to become children of God (John 1:12). Faith, then, precedes regeneration, for the children were “born . . . of the will . . . of God” (John 1:13) only upon receiving or believing in Jesus Christ initially. We understand from Scripture that “regeneration” is the act of God which “saves” us (Titus 3:5): “he saved us . . . through the water of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit” (NRSV). “Salvation” and “regeneration” are interconnected; there cannot be one without the other.

Yet, Scripture also confesses that an individual is “saved” by faith in the Lord Jesus Christ (Rom. 3:22, 25, 26, 27, 28; 4:1-5, 16; 5:1; Gal. 2:16, 20; 3:11; Eph. 2:8). If one is “saved” (by grace) through faith, then one is “regenerated” by God when one believes in Christ, which means that faith precedes regeneration. (We are not permitted to define the word grace as regeneration.) The apostle Paul explicitly states as much by informing the Colossian believers that God regenerated them (“made them alive”) when they had been forgiven of their sins (Col. 2:13). We know that people are only forgiven of their sins and are justified by faith in Christ (Rom. 5:1). Thus, again, faith precedes regeneration. Though an individual must be enabled (John 6:44) and granted (John 6:65; Phil. 1:29) the power to believe, the actual believing is done by the individual (Matt. 9.22, 29; 15.28; Mk. 4.40; Luke 8.25; Acts 14.9; Rom. 1.8; 4.5; 1 Cor. 2.5; 15.14; 2 Cor. 1.24; Eph. 1.15; Phil. 2.17; Col. 1.4; 2.5; 1 Thes. 3.2, 5, 6, 7, 10; Philemon 1:6; Heb. 10.23; 12.2; James 1.3; 2.18; 1 Pet. 1.7, 9, 21; 2 Pet. 1.5; 1 Jn. 5.4; Jude 1:20), not by God. God does not believe for us, nor does He “implant” faith in our minds through regeneration. Scripture does not grant us warrant for such a belief.

Ultimately, what Calvinists such as Sproul and Packer have done is make the Reformed teaching of Luther and Calvin infallible doctrine, thereby excluding all others (the vast majority) who disagree with certain aspects of their doctrines, from any relation to the Reformation, declaring them “un-Christian” or “anti-Christian.”9 Sproul’s comment, that Arminians are Christians, “barely,” further divides Christ’s body. Arminians and semi-Pelagians, though redeemed by the same Savior (and by the Calvinist’s own doctrine have been unconditionally elected by the same God), are relegated as some deformity on the body of Christ — a blemish or pimple which disgraces the Head.

Even in my great disdain for Calvinism, I do not recall ever stating that Calvinism is either un-Christian or anti-Christian. Historically, Calvinism is heterodox, for the early Church prior to St. Augustine did not teach anything remotely related to the theories of unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, or the exhaustive determinism of God. Calvinism’s novel conceptions have caused (and are still causing) some of the greatest controversies we have experienced in Christ’s body. But I have never thought of Calvinism as un-Christian. The depths and lengths to which some Calvinists will tread in order to propagate Calvinism is utterly appalling.

One of the aspects which Calvinists disdain about Arminianism the most is God’s granting the sinner a grace to believe in Christ which can be resisted. Sproul complains: “Then why say that Arminianism ‘in effect’ makes faith a meritorious work? Because the good response people make to the gospel becomes the ultimate determining factor in salvation.”10 Sproul’s complaint is essentially with Scripture, and the manner in which God has declared He works in the earth with humanity, not with Arminian theology proper.

Since faith in Christ is not, biblically stated, a “work” (Rom. 4:4-5), then neither can it be viewed as a work in Arminian theology: trusting in Christ is not working for salvation. Paul settled that issue in his letter to the Romans. The “ultimate determining factor in salvation,” as Sproul states, being the instrument of one’s faith in Christ still cannot be viewed as a work, strictly taken, or a “return to Rome,” since trusting in Christ is not considered working for one’s salvation (Rom. 4:4-5). If God has established a condition for saving a person, and He has — through one’s faith in Jesus Christ — then even the “ultimate determining factor in salvation” is still God, since He alone saves; faith in Christ does not save or cause one’s regeneration. God causes or works one’s regeneration or salvation when one’s faith is placed in Christ. Faith is an instrumental means unto salvation, but not salvation or regeneration itself. That intellectual Calvinists such as Sproul and Packer (and a host of others) have not thought this out is an embarrassment.

Arminians are not “barely” saved, even by a felicitous inconsistency. Arminians, by grace through faith in Jesus Christ, are saved Christians “to the uttermost” (Heb. 7:25 NKJV).

1 R. C. Sproul, Willing to Believe: The Controversy over Free Will (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1997), 25.

2 Ibid., 24.

3 Ibid.

4 Ibid., 22-23.

5 Ibid., 23.

6 Ibid., 24.

7 James Arminius, “Certain Articles to be Diligently Examined and Weighed: XIX. On Faith,” The Works of Arminius, three volumes, the London Edition, trans. James and William Nichols (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1996), 2:723.

8 Ibid., 2:723-24.

9 Sproul, 24.

10 Ibid., 26.