Arminius and the Remonstrants on the Forfeiture of Salvation

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Years ago, I believed that Arminius was too ambivalent on the issue of the possibility of one falling away from the faith and forfeiting (or losing) one’s salvation by a subsequent rejection of that initial faith-confession to render a dogmatic conclusion one way or the other. I would read statements of his, such as, “But at no period have I asserted ‘that believers do finally decline or fall away from faith or salvation,'”1 and declare his ambivalence. Clearly, at this stage in his career as a theologian, as well as a Reformed pastor, he thinks the matter needs much more careful study, especially given the examples of apostasy in Scripture.

But then we read this confession of his: “If [King] David had died in the very moment in which he had sinned against Uriah by adultery and murder, he would have been condemned to death eternal,”2 and we wonder how such a view corroborates with an eternal security position; since, if necessary perseverance is true, and all future sins have been forgiven already, then David’s sins against God, Uriah, and Bathsheba would have been atoned regardless of his repentance.

I think a proper way of viewing Arminius on this issue is three-fold: 1) examine what he writes; 2) examine the reaction of what he writes by the Calvinists of his day; and 3) examine what his followers, the Remonstrants, write on the doctrine.

Should one seek to contextualize Arminius’ soteriological views properly (his views on the doctrine of salvation, which would include the notion of perseverance and final salvation), I think the lens through which we need to look is that of contingency. In other words, because God has not strictly decreed and foreordained every minutiae of our existence, including who is to be saved and who is to be damned — again, merely by decree, and not by God’s exhaustive knowledge and foreknowledge of free-and-enabled choices — then any concept of necessary perseverance is gratuitous at best in classical Arminian theology.
Within this framework, Arminius is not bound to declare, like his Calvinist counterparts, that God will by necessity see to it that His unconditionally elect persevere in the faith to the end and finally be saved. He even defends such a notion to the contrary from an historical perspective:

The opinion which denies “that true believers and regenerate persons are either capable of falling away, or actually do fall away, from the faith totally and finally” was never, from the very times of the Apostles down to the present day, accounted by the church as a catholic verity [i.e., a universal truth].3

So he is perplexed at the reaction of Calvinists to his questioning their dogma of absolute or necessitarian perseverance. He states further: “Neither has that which affirms by the contrary ever been reckoned as an heretical opinion; nay, that which affirms it possible for believers to fall away from the faith has always had more supporters in the church of Christ than that which denies its possibility or its actually occurring.”4 (emphasis original)
Moreover, Arminius is concerned that too much emphasis upon assurance of final salvation, including what he perceives to be the error that one’s future sins have already been forgiven, would engender an attitude “adverse to faith and hope,” which is “directly opposed to that most salutary fear with which we are commanded to work out our salvation” with fear and trembling (Phil. 2:12).5 Yet he also insists:

He who is of opinion that it is possible for him to decline from the faith, and who, therefore, is afraid lest he should decline, is neither destitute of necessary consolation, nor is he, on this account, tormented with anxiety of mind. For it suffices to inspire consolation and to exclude anxiety when he knows that he will decline from the faith through no force of Satan, of sin, or of the world, and through no … inclination or weakness of his own flesh, unless he willingly and of his own accord yield to temptation, and neglect to work out his salvation in a conscientious manner.6

This is the view adopted by John and Charles Wesley, as well.7 Keith Stanglin and Thomas McCall conclude: “In the end, there is really little question that Arminius believed in the possibility of apostasy for a true believer, and he even gave biblical examples to show that it has actually happened.”8 F. Stuart Clarke adds: “Arminius questions Reformed views that a believer without a special revelation can be assured that he will not decline or fall away from the faith, or that believers are bound to believe that they will not so decline (so-called final perseverance).”9
Many are of the conviction, as am I, that, had Arminius lived a fuller life, he would have, like his followers, dogmatically concluded that a person could forfeit his or her salvation. After insisting that he has never actually claimed that the faithful actually do fall away, he then writes, “On the other hand, if believers fall away from the faith and become unbelievers, it is impossible for them to do otherwise than decline from salvation — that is, provided they still continue [as] unbelievers.”10
In his most famous anti-supralapsarian work, the Declaration of Sentiments, he writes of his desire for a national Synod, in order for all to determine from the scriptures “whether it is possible for some individuals through negligence to forfeit their existence in Christ — whether they might actually return to worldliness, turn away from the sound doctrine delivered to them, lose good conscience, and cause divine grace to become ineffectual.”11 These are questions and statements a Calvinist, or a non-Calvinist holding to an eternal security position, would never consider or accept.

That Arminius questions the doctrine of perseverance is cause enough for the Calvinists of his day to charge him with heterodoxy, or worse, semi-Pelagianism or outright Pelagianism — though he vehemently denies any connection with either view. The doctrine of perseverance is a given in Calvinism, since God has unconditionally pre-selected whom He shall save, having atoned for their sins by Christ and forgiven them of all future sins (a notion Arminius and the Remonstrants reject), regenerated them and promises to keep them saved — all predicated, of course, upon an eternal decree.

But for a theology that does not operate within such a framework, the concept of necessary perseverance is, well, unnecessary. For Calvinists, and especially supralapsarian Calvinists, this non-necessarian doctrine is intolerable. The Calvinists of the Synod of Dordt state:

So it is not by their own merits or strength but by God’s undeserved mercy that they neither forfeit faith and grace totally nor remain in their downfalls to the end and are lost. With respect to themselves this not only easily could happen, but also undoubtedly would happen; but with respect to God it cannot possibly happen, since his plan cannot be changed, his promise cannot fail, the calling according to his purpose cannot be revoked, the merit of Christ as well as his interceding and preserving cannot be nullified, and the sealing of the Holy Spirit can neither be invalidated nor wiped out. (emphases added)

I think the issue here is one of hermeneutics, not of Scripture proof-texting, nor of creed. The Calvinists are working with an entirely other theological framework than are the Arminians, and the one cannot be held accountable to the other and vice versa. In other words, the Calvinists cannot insist that, because the Arminians sustain a different conclusion on the matter, then they are in error. They are not in error — not according to their hermeneutic and overall theological framework.
When we suggest that Calvinists are wrong, we do so not based on our own hermeneutic but by theirs, insisting that their conclusions are in error because of their faulty hermeneutic or, at times, blatant inconsistenties. The Calvinists of Arminius’ day do not operate in such a fashion. For them, whatever they hold, they alone preserve orthodoxy for all believers.
Shortly after the death of Arminius (d. 1609), in 1610, his followers — those theologians and professors who agree with his theology — carry on his work by submitting to the State a Remonstrance (protest) against five main theological issues held by Calvinists. The last matter, Article V, concerns the doctrine of perseverance. They state:

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 Spirit; 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 10:28: “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 we ourselves can teach it with the full persuasion of our minds. (emphasis added)

By 1618, however, after being demanded by the Calvinists of the State for a final answer on the matter, in The Opinions of the Remonstrants, they emphatically state:

3. True believers can fall from true faith and can fall into such sins as cannot be consistent with true and justifying faith; not only is it possible for this to happen, but it even happens frequently.

4. True believers are able to fall through their own fault into shameful and atrocious deeds, to persevere and to die in them; and therefore finally to fall and to perish.

This they also perpetuate in their Arminian Confession of 1621, and Arminian theology would hereafter insist that forfeiture of salvation is possible for a true believer who eventually rejects the faith. They do, however, maintain that a believer can be sure of his or her future salvation by daily prayer and other holy exercises. Since we are justified by faith (Rom. 5:1), then present faith, by the gracious sanctifying work of God enabling us to fearfully work out our salvation (Phil. 2:12, 13), grants us assurance of salvation. Should one reject his or her initial faith, then that person cannot and will not be justified, and cannot have assurance of future salvation.
Whether one can hold to the doctrine of eternal security and yet adhere to conditional election, unlimited atonement, and resistible grace and still be called an Arminian is often debated by those within the Arminian camp. While the issue of perseverance does not make or break Arminian theology, strictly, I think that, historically, an Arminian is one who believes that forfeiture of salvation is a possibility, and that such actually does happen, as we are warned against such throughout the tenor of the Hebrew and Christian scriptures.
Should a self-professed Arminian hold to necessary perseverance, as do Calvinists, I would merely suggest that such an Arminian is inconsistent; much in the same way I would suggest that a Calvinist who rejects the concept of Limited Atonement is an inconsistent Calvinist.  Both systems of thought work well when all points are held consistently. However, there are four-point Calvinists (or Amyraldians, those who reject Limited Atonement), just as there are four-point Arminians (the latter holding to eternal security). There are also those who shun all such labels. What is most important is understanding who saves whom.
1 Jacob Arminius, “Apology against Thirty-One Defamatory Articles,” in The Works of Arminius, the London edition, three volumes, trans. James and William Nichols (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1996), 1:741. See also Carl Bangs, Arminius: A Study in the Dutch Reformation (Eugene: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 1985), 312-13.
2 Ibid., 2:725.
3 Ibid.
4 Ibid.
5 Ibid., 2:726.
6 Ibid.
7 John Wesley writes: “Here is not a supposition, but a plain relation of fact. The apostle here describes the case of those who have cast away both the power and the form of godliness; who have lost both their faith, hope, and love. . . . Of these willful total apostates he declares, it is impossible to renew them again to repentance (though they were renewed once), either to the foundation, or anything built thereon. …” (link)
8 Keith D. Stanglin and Thomas H. McCall, Jacob Arminius: Theologian of Grace (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 173.
9 F. Stuart Clarke, The Ground of Election: Jacobus Arminius’ Doctrine of the Work and Person of Christ (Waynesboro: Paternoster, 2006), 102.
10 Works, 2:142.
11 Jacob Arminius, Declaration of Sentiments, in W. Stephen Gunter,Arminius and His Declaration of Sentiments: An Annotated Translation with Introduction and Theological Commentary (Waco: Baylor University Press, 2012), 141-42.