Arminius’s Doctrine of Grace

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Often erroneously accused of Pelagianism or semi-Pelagianism, Arminius and his followers have historically suffered — and continue to suffer — one misrepresentation after another by their theological opponents. Usually, the caricature of Arminian theology comes from the pens of Calvinists who have never read primary material from Arminius or his followers the Remonstrants, or have never read secondary material regarding Reformed Arminianism either by Arminian scholars or objective, “non-Arminian” authors (though there are, thankfully, always exceptions).

We hope to be part of the remedy of that unfortunate circumstance by offering primary and secondary sources on this site. That is why we often present posts such as this one, endeavoring to advance Arminian theology, which we think is biblical, and deflect undue criticism from Calvinists and others. Viable arguments can be made against Arminianism, Calvinism, Wesleyanism, Pentecostalism, and whatever other theological system can be named. But only when we rightly represent our opponent’s views is critiquing a particular theology done respectfully.

The following work on Arminius’s doctrine of grace is taken from Dr. Mark A. Ellis’ Simon Episcopius’ Doctrine of Original Sin, an American University Studies series on theology and religion. Dr. Ellis is Professor of Systematic Theology and New Testament at the Seminário Teológico Batista do Rio Grande do Sul in Porto Alegre, Brazil. This book, published by Peter Lang, examines and contrasts the theology of Jacob Arminius (1559-1609) with that of his successor Simon Episcopius (1583-1643). Dr. Ellis writes the following.

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Because of God’s holiness, the entrance of sin [into the world] required a change if humanity were to maintain a relationship with God. It could no longer be legal, because “man, [writes Arminius] being liable to the condemnation of God, needs the grace of restoration.” . . . Forgiveness is an act of grace that rests on the work of Jesus Christ. The basis for the evangelical faith is God’s gracious response to human inability, and “God’s love of miserable sinners, on which likewise the Christian religion is founded.” Arminius taught prolifically on the theme of grace. Four aspects of grace are important for our discussion: its definition, necessity, operation and relation to free will.

GRACE DEFINED

Arminius’s definition of grace depended upon its context. He could define grace as an attribute of God, a “certain adjunct of (God’s) goodness and love.” At times, he defined it according to function, as when he distinguished between the grace of conservation and the grace of restoration. In another place he defined grace as a gratuitous affection, an infusion of the gifts of the Spirit, the perpetual assistance and continued aid of the Holy Spirit. He employed the scholastic categories of common, sufficient and efficient grace, and based his refutation of the Calvinist doctrine of irresistible grace on his distinction between sufficient and efficient grace, and most importantly, on his definition of the essence of grace.

The most significant of Arminius’ definitions is that “grace” is an abstraction for the Holy Spirit. Because Arminius sometimes spoke of grace as an “infusion,” some have erred in thinking Arminius regarded grace “as a kind of quasi-metaphysical substance or energy” [much like the charge made by many Arminians and “non-Calvinists” that some Calvinists treat God’s grace as the fourth member of the Godhead]. Nor is grace merely the operation of the Holy Spirit before or after the moment of faith. Grace is the Holy Spirit, and the renewing of grace is a renewal of immediate union between God and humanity through the indwelling of the Spirit, “for God unites Himself to the understanding and to the will of His creature, by means of Himself alone . . . in which consists the Chief Good of a rational being, which cannot find rest except in the greatest union of itself with God.” Grace includes both the perpetual assistance of the Spirit, moving people through “infusing healthy thoughts and inspiring good desires into him,” and the restoration of the gifts of the Spirit. This definition of grace agrees well with his understanding of privation of the Holy Spirit as the penalty . . . for the fall.

THE NECESSITY AND OPERATION OF GRACE

The Necessity of Grace

Arminius employed various synonyms for sufficient and efficient grace. He used terms such as “preceding,” “prevenient,” “preparative,” “preventing and exciting,” and “operating” for sufficient grace and “following and cooperating” or “subsequent or following” for efficient grace. Nevertheless, his preferred terms were “sufficient” and “efficient” grace. His distinction between them rested on two emphases in his theology: the absolute necessity of grace, and the freedom of the will to reject grace. . . .

The necessity of grace issued both from humanity’s creation (the supernaturals being a central component of the divine image), and from the results of sin entering the “world.” Original sin makes it impossible for people to either do good or please God on the basis of their natural abilities, and necessitates the renewal of the presence and operation of the Spirit. Nevertheless, the will is free to reject the grace of God, dividing the ministry of the Spirit between what He performs up to the point of faith (sufficient grace) and what He performs afterward (efficient grace). . . .

[Arminius refuted the theory of regeneration preceding faith, and countered the theory by asking], “But if grace restores the [freedom] of the will, can it not then in a free will act sufficiently, or does it act efficaciously?” Cannot grace remove impotence, “and cause man to receive the offered grace, to use it when received and to preserve it?” There exist two hindrances to the work of grace: passive resistance because of inborn sin and active resistance because of acquired sinfulness. Grace may remove the first, but the second continues. On the contrary, if grace were to act irresistibly upon the will, then grace does not free the will but destroys it. If it acts resistibly, then grace “corrects the nature itself wheresoever it has become faulty.” . . .

The Operation of Grace and Free Will

We may summarize Arminius’ understanding of the relation between grace and free will in two sentences. First, grace is absolutely necessary to persuade the will to faith in Christ, and without grace, the will cannot do so. . . . Second, at any moment the will is free to reject the grace of God [due to inborn sin]. The necessity of grace does not violate the domain of human freedom. . . . Arminius argued that all of Church history [at least prior to St Augustine in the fifth century] supported this. . . .

CONCLUSION

Arminius’s doctrine of the imago Dei [image of God] was similar, if not identical, to other scholastic Reformed theologians of his era. . . . He did not believe the fall added some principle of evil to human nature. Rather, the effects of sin were the consequences of the naturals [and a privation of the Good] functioning without the guidance of grace and the attendant qualities of right reason and pure affections. . . .

Arminius acknowledged the absolute necessity of God’s grace. Grace provided the propitiatory, expiatory sacrifice for sins through the death of the Lord Jesus Christ, and grace alone provides for human freedom from the bondage and slavery of sin. Arminius believed the privation of the Spirit resulted in an Augustinian division between freedom and liberty. Humanity is in bondage to sin, and freely desires and chooses those things that were in accordance to sin. People are unable to turn toward the things of God without the calling of God through the preaching of the Gospel and the internal calling of the Spirit. Even so, Arminius did not believe that people experienced salvation because they wanted it, or chose to believe, but because they chose not to resist the Spirit. Thus, he was neither Pelagian nor Semi-Pelagian.

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Mark A. Ellis, Simon Episcopius’ Doctrine of Original Sin (New York: Peter Lang Publishing, Inc., 2008), 79-85.