by Martin Glynn
Unlike Calvinism with Dordt, Arminianism doesn’t really have a singular document which defines us. However, there does exist the Articles of the Remonstrants which marks the first expression of a distinctly Arminian theology. Even though we do not feel bound to it, it does stand as the most basic and classic expression of the Arminian faith and is therefore a standard for the Arminian. They are:
- On Election
- On The Atonement
- The Total Depravity of Humanity
- On Grace
- Security in Christ and the Spirit
This article is meant to be a commentary on this historic document to help Arminians understand where their theology comes from, and to help them grasp the spirit of the Remonstrants.
Comments on the document itself
First of all we need to understand the purpose of the document and its historical background. After John Calvin died, he left his school of Geneva, which was THE academic standard on Protestantism, to Theodore Beza. Beza and his colleagues took Calvin’s statements on election and predestination, and began to iron out the particulars of the theology. The result was several debates about the nature of election and God’s decrees, the order of salvation, and the application of the Atonement to the elect.
In this environment, a young theologian named Jacob Arminius rises up among the ranks at Geneva for being a profound biblical exegete (interpreter). Though originally fully committed to what we would today call Calvinism, he began to notice some dissonance between the theology and the biblical witness. He began to call these things into question, and those that followed him afterwards called themselves the Remonstrants (or protesters).
After many years of quarrelling and many false accusations, the Remonstrants put together this document as a statement of faith, as an appeal for a general council to discuss the issue. Though this council would end up being the Synod of Dordt which was more of a trial than a synod, their desire was to be heard.
It is important then to notice that this document was not intended to be a canon or rule of faith. They were not saying that this is what all Christians should believe. They were simply stating that this is what they believed, and that they believed they had Scriptural support. This is why the articles are simple statements of what they believe, for they were not making an argument. Additionally, each article does have a bible reference demonstrating a firm commitment to Scripture over human philosophy. This is most aptly seen in the fifth article.
This history also explains the order of the articles, as well as the subjects addressed. The articles on election and atonement are first because these were the subjects most frequently talked about. This is not the logical order, but instead represents the setting forth of the subject to be discussed. Conversely, the articles on depravity and grace represent a logical order, with article five representing a doubt as opposed to a stance.
Article I: On Election
That God, by an eternal, unchangeable purpose in Jesus Christ, his Son, before the foundation of the world, hath determined, out of the fallen, sinful race of men, to save in Christ, for Christ’s sake, and through Christ, those who, through the grace of the Holy Ghost, shall believe on this his Son Jesus, and shall persevere in this faith and obedience of faith, through this grace, even to the end; and, on the other hand, to leave the incorrigible and unbelieving in sin and under wrath, and to condemn them as alienate from Christ, according to the word of the Gospel in John iii. 36: “He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life; and he that believeth not the Son shall not see life; but the wrath of God abideth on him,” and according to other passages of Scripture also.
Yes, that is one sentence. It’s how they wrote back then.
What this article basically says is that God sovereignly chose to condition salvation upon the human will. This is the basic point. This is over against the Calvinist point of view that God sovereignly chose each individual person to be saved.
However, let’s look at how the article says this. First of all, the basic sentence, after taking out all of the side comments is this: “That God… has determined… to save … those who… shall believe on his Son Jesus, and shall persevere in this faith…” The subject is God, so God is doing the action here. This emphasizes the primacy of the divine action over anything the human might do.
The verb is determined. What God has done is to determine something, or decree it using the language of the day. This is a statement that what we are talking about here is not something which God had to do, but something that God sovereignly decided to do. Indeed, the idea that this is a sovereign act of God is emphasized by pointing out the motivation of this decree as an “eternal, unchangeable purpose in Jesus Christ” and by saying that it was decreed before the foundation of the world.
So what did God determine? To save those who will have faith in Jesus. It is emphasized that it is not merely those who at some point believe, but those who persevere in this faith. Therefore salvation is conditioned upon two things: faith in Jesus and perseverance of this faith. However, not works. Faith is clearly the emphasis here. Even the phrase “obedience of faith” doesn’t seem to mark a requirement of salvation, but a mark of what it looks like to persevere: to live by faith.
Something else that needs to be pointed out here is how Christocentric (Christ centered) this is. God’s purpose in this decree is Jesus and that those who are saved are saved “in Christ, for Christ’s sake, and through Christ”. We are saved within the body of Christ, we are saved because Christ loves us and wants us saved, and we are saved only through the power of Christ, not our own. Christ, as opposed to eternal decrees, is the center of salvation–the crux, if you will, upon which salvation rests.
Also, just to be complete, they mention the third person of the Trinity as well, mentioning that we believe “through the grace of the Holy Ghost,” emphasizing that even faith comes from God. This anticipates article four, and even article five as this grace is also identified as the means of perseverance. It is also good to note the article three is also anticipated eariler in this article by stating that those who are going to be saved come “out of the fallen, sinful race of men”
All of this is followed by a simple statement of the reprobate. If you remain in unbelief, you also remain under the wrath of God and are thus eternally condemned. It is important to note though that the emphasis is on the saved. More time and energy is spent talking about saving faith here. Why? Because that is the emphasis in Scripture. God’s mercy is always held above His justice, though His justice is never diminished.
Article II: On the Atonement
That, agreeably thereto, Jesus Christ, the Savior of the world, died for all men and for every man, so that he has obtained for them all, by his death on the cross, redemption, and the forgiveness of sins; yet that no one actually enjoys this forgiveness of sins, except the believer, according to the word of the Gospel of John iii. 16: “God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life”; and in the First Epistle of John ii. 2: “And he is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world.”
This one is a much simpler sentence. Here the subject is Jesus Christ and the verb is died and the point of the article is to say who He died for. The answer is that He died for everyone. Indeed, this is emphasized by repeating it 3 times: “all men”, “every man”, and “for them all”. This is, of course, over against the Calvinist idea that Christ only died for the elect. This is followed by what was accomplished: redemption and forgiveness of sins.
A brief comment on the term ‘agreeably thereto’. This is a reference back to the first article, and it means, literally, to make what was just said possible. Therefore, redemption and forgiveness of sins is the means to accomplish that act that article one was discussing: salvation.
Now the Calvinist responds that this cannot be the case, for if Christ died for persons who will not enjoy the benefits of the forgiveness of sins, then Christ failed. To this, I say that Christ didn’t fail, for Christ died knowing that many would not believe in Him. The purpose wasn’t to save every single person, but to bring salvation to all of humanity. Christ’s purpose on the cross is still fulfilled even if there are some that reject the salvation that is offered to them.
Article III: Total Depravity of Humanity
That man has not saving grace of himself, nor of the energy of his free-will, inasmuch as he, in the state of apostasy and sin, can of and by himself neither think, will, nor do anything that is truly good (such as having faith eminently is); but that it is needful that he be born again of God in Christ, through his Holy Spirit, and renewed in understanding, inclination, or will, and all his powers, in order that he may rightly understand, think, will, and effect what is truly good, according to the word of Christ, John xv. 5: “Without me ye can do nothing.”
This article is an unqualified expression of Total Depravity. It is important to note that there is no necessary difference between the Calvinist and the Arminian in the subject of depravity. So why did the Remonstrants include this article if they are not objecting to the doctrine?
The answer is simply that of defense. The Remonstrants, as are Arminians today, were accused of being Pelagian/Semipelagian. However, the idea that marks Pelagianism is a rejection of total depravity: the idea that humanity can approach God on our own. Here the Remonstrants are clear: we are born totally depraved.
To make it even more clear, they define the extent of this depravity. Man cannot think, will, nor do anything that is truly good. Between the parentheses, it is made clear that the saving faith, which was discussed in the previous two articles, is amoung those things that the human cannot do without intervention from God. Furthermore, it is stated that it is only through God the human can even hope to obtain any of these good qualities, including saving faith. This is also made through a Trinitarian statement of “born again of God in Christ, through His Holy Spirit”. Though I am personally not sure if the Remonstrants mean that regeneration comes before salvation, as Calvinists assert and I disagree with, I am sure that their emphasis here is that none can come to God unless God acts first.
Article IV: On Grace
That this grace of God is the beginning, continuance, and accomplishment of any good, even to this extent, that the regenerate man himself, without that prevenient or assisting; awakening, following, and co-operative grace, can neither think, will, nor do good, nor withstand any temptations to evil; so that all good deeds or movements that can be conceived must be ascribed to the grace of God in Christ. But, as respects the mode of the operation of this grace, it is not irresistible, inasmuch as it is written concerning many that they have resisted the Holy Ghost,—Acts vii, and elsewhere in many places.
Holy Cow! Two sentences!
The first sentence is practically a restatement on article 3, except the emphasis shifts from describing the state of man to describing the need/power of grace. It is saying that any good which any person does is a result of the grace of God, and that it is necessary to think, will, and do good and withstand temptation. Indeed, this grace is said to be the beginning of any good thing, the continuance or working out of any good thing, and that which causes every good thing to be finished.
However, there is also in the sentence some descriptions of “this” grace that we should pay attention to. First of all, ‘prevenient’. You don’t have to be involved in the Calvinism/Arminianism debate very long to come across this word. This simply means to come before, and the point is that grace precedes every good deed that we do. In other words, God always acts first.
However, another word is offered as a synonym for ‘prevenient’: ‘assisting’. ‘Assisting’ doesn’t mean come before, so how can it be an alternative term? The answer is that it is describing more specifically how this grace operates. It doesn’t dominate and control us, but it assists, or enables us to do these good things of our own will. This is the idea of being freed by grace to have faith. Indeed, three more words are added: ‘awakening’ which implies the very first act of grace to enable us to respond, ‘following’ which I suppose refers to any act of grace which follows awakening grace, and ‘co-operative’ affirming that God is working with us as much as He is working on us. However, I don’t want to deemphasize the thrust of this sentence: that grace is necessary for us to do any good and God always acts first.
With the second sentence we come to the actual point of the article. As great and necessary as this grace is, the human can resist it. Compared with the rest of the document, it is incredible how quickly the Remonstrants make this remarkable statement which is a major contention point between the Arminian and the Calvinist. I would surmise that this is because the Remonstrants are still speaking in defense in this article, as they were in article 3.
But, this sentence is deceptively simple, for contained in it is this one phrase: “as respects the mode of the operation of this grace.” Well what does that mean? It means that this resistibility is not to be found in the nature of the grace, but to be found in the way this grace is applied to us. In other words, against the common Calvinist accusation, we are not capable of overpowering and defeating this grace, but God offers the grace in such a way (implying He could have done so differently) that we may reject salvation. It is important here to note that this is not a systematic theology, so a precise order of salvation or an extended description of the operation of grace is not given. Instead, we are left with this simple statement that grace can be resisted due, not to its power or lack there of, but to the mode of its operation.
Article V: Security in Christ and the Spirit
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 Ghost; 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 x. 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.
Again we have two sections here. The first sentence is just as complicated as what we found in article one. Here is it simplified (italics are my own words): “That true believers have thereby full power to strive against evil and to win the victory…” The word ‘thereby’ is a reference to the previous article, saying that this power comes from grace. So what is the point of this? Very simply, that Satan, sin, the world, and the sin nature are not strong enough to cause a true believer to fall way from the faith. The powers of darkness have no power over us. The only options left are either that if someone were to fall from the faith, it must be their own fault, or that once someone is saved they cannot fall away (OSAS). However, at the moment these two options are not discussed (that is for the second section). Right now the focus is that we cannot be defeated.
Now a huge qualification is given. Often the subject of this article (security) is approached in one of two ways. First, there is the idea of that our opinion here is the logical outpouring of the other articles. For instance, once someone saved, they must not be able to fall away if irresistible grace and unconditional election are true. Conversely, there are those who say that if conditional election and resistible grace are true, then one should be able to fall away. However, the Remonstrants do not make such an argument.
The second idea is through the concept of assurance. The Calvinist will claim that they have assurance since it is impossible for them to fall away. However, the Arminian who rejects OSAS, and in fact Arminianism in general, states that assurance should be had in your current condition, not your eventual condition. Unlike the Calvinist, we say that we are sure that right now we are saved. The Calvinist cannot make such a statement. However, the Remonstrants don’t make this argument either.
They take a third way. They argue instead through the power of Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit. It must be emphasized that the reason that we cannot be defeated is because of Christ and the Holy Spirit, not because of us. In this we find assurance: that Christ and the Holy Spirit will never leave nor forsake us, and through them all things are possible, and no enemy is insurmountable. This is, after all, the thrust of Scripture: trust in Christ. That is where we should find security instead of some unknowable ancient decree from the foundation of the world.
Now let’s look at the second section. As I said before, the first section left two options: either we can’t fall away, or, if we can, it must be because of our own will which was freed by grace. Indeed, the Remonstrants here list these as the two remaining possibilities. Which one do they choose? Neither! I love the fact that they have both the humility and the courage to say that they don’t know.
Moreover, they don’t just chalk it up to an impossible mystery, never to be fully understood. Instead, they simply say they need to research it more in Scripture. This is such a bold and humble demonstration of what Sola Scriptura looks like. In the end, it is not what makes sense to them that matters most: it is Scripture. My guess, and this is only a guess, is that they saw the possibility of falling away in Scripture, but agreed with the logic of OSAS. It is also possible that many of them simply disagreed on the issue. Or it could be that many just flat out didn’t know. But that’s not the point. The point is that they aren’t sure, and that they are going to continue to investigate it through Scripture.
What does this mean to the present Arminian? It means that Arminianism itself does not have the possibility of real apostasy as one of its defining marks. It is a common mark, but one can be a consistent Arminian and still believe in OSAS.
This marks, what I believe to be, the spirit of the Remonstrants: a firm reliance on Scripture and openness to being corrected. This is why Arminianism, on the whole, allows for a variety of opinions, because that is the natural result of faithfulness to Sola Scriptura. It is a faith that holds firm to what it believes, with the humble recognition that there are places where I might be wrong. This is an aspect that we must celebrate as a mark of humility and devotion to the Scripture.