The posts that have come before this one have attempted to describe orthodox Arminian soteriology as taught by both Jacob Arminius and John Wesley. Unfortunately there are many who claim to be Arminian who do not hold to the teachings of Arminius and Wesley, oftentimes not even knowing what they taught. And all too often the people who criticize Arminianism are also unaware of what Arminianism actually teaches, and are arguing against a strawman.
So, what is Arminianism? It may be beneficial to start with what it is not. Arminianism is not anything that is not Calvinism. Calvinism is actually a complete theological system developed initially by John Calvin. Jacob Arminius was an early follower of Calvin who took exception to the soteriology of Calvin and how it was reflected in the character of God. Arminianism really only deals with the doctrine of salvation and, unlike Calvinism, has nothing to say about infant baptism, church government, and many other distinctive Calvinist beliefs.
Contrary to the picture many paint of Arminianism, it is not semi-Pelagianism, which teaches that man is able of himself to initiate his salvation experience. Arminianism agrees with Calvinism that mankind is totally depraved with no innate ability to seek God. Arminianism is also not the same as Open Theism. Arminianism believes that God is omniscient in regards to time; that he foreknew everything that would happen prior to creation. Proponents of Open Theism believe that God has only limited foreknowledge of the future, and that he cannot know the choices that humans will make.
The following table will compare the soteriology of Arminianism with Calvinism. Calvinism soteriology is most often associated with the acronym TULIP while Arminian soteriology does not have a universally accepted acronym. For the purpose of this summary I will use the FACTS acronym used by the Society of Evangelical Arminians, although will reorder the letters of the acronym into a more logical presentation.
|Total Depravity: This is the one point that both agree on. As a consequence of the fall, mankind is totally depraved and incapable of himself to come to God for salvation. Apart from the working of God’s grace there can be no salvation.|
|Conditional Election: God elects, or chooses, all of those who respond in faith to his gift of salvation. We are able to respond, not because of something innately in us, but because of the enabling of the Holy Spirit via prevenient grace.||Unconditional Election: God sovereignly chooses some for salvation, independently of anything that the one chosen may believe or do. Logically, God chooses, then regenerates, and then faith is exercised.|
|Atonement for All: Christ’s atoning work on the cross was for all people, although it is effective only for those who believe. This is not universalism. While the atonement was for all, only those who believe receive its benefit.||Limited Atonement: Christ’s atoning work on the cross was only for the elect. Atonement is only available for those God has foreordained to salvation. Some Calvinists reject this and accept unlimited atonement. This is also the point at which Lutherans disagree with Calvinists, rejecting limited atonement.|
|Freed by Grace (to Believe): The Holy Spirit works in the life of unbelievers to enable them to believe. Salvation is then offered as a gift that may either be accepted or rejected.||Irresistible Grace: The Holy Spirit works in the life of the elect to bring them into relationship with Christ. This working of the Holy Spirit is irresistible, all of the foreordained will come to faith.|
|Security in Christ: All of those who persist in their faith will be saved in the end. Those who do not persist will suffer the loss of their salvation. Some Arminians do not accept the possibility of apostasy in a true believer.||Persistence of the Saints: Those who God has foreordained to salvation are saved eternally with no possibility of apostasy. Those who appear to fall away were never saved in the first place.|
As you can see, there are some significant differences in how John Calvin and Jacob Arminius, and their respective followers, view the doctrine of salvation. But more significant than these differences is how they view the character of God. While both view God as sovereign, they understand the sovereignty of God in different ways. For the Calvinist, God is only sovereign if he is in complete and total control of everything that happens in the creation. If anyone is able to perform some action, or make some decision that is not at God’s direction, then God is not sovereign.
This issue of the understanding God’s sovereignty is what led Jacob Arminius to reject the soteriology of Calvinism. He saw divine determinism (God determines everything) as making God the author of sin, removing any real responsibility for sin from humanity. If a person can only act in accordance with God’s decrees, then when they sin it is a result of God’s decree; it is what God wanted them to do. For Arminius, God was sovereign over all of his creation, but that sovereignty included God’s permissive will, allowing humanity to act at odds with God’s desired will. But even as God allows evil, he uses it to accomplish his purpose. Our human choices are never unexpected or allowed to interfere with God’s purpose in creation.
The other issue Arminius had with the Calvinism of his day is in their related doctrine of predestination. In Calvin’s doctrine of predestination, modeled after Augustine’s, God has chosen some to salvation prior to creation, irrespective of anything the individual might do; God seemingly arbitrarily chooses some to salvation. Some Calvinists will also argue that God has specifically chosen the rest of humanity to an eternity in hell. Others argue against that double predestination, but the result is the same. If you are not among the chosen, you are among the damned. To Arminius, this pictured God as a monster; creating some humans with no actual hope of escaping from the fires of hell.
Instead, Arminius, appealing to the Scripture as well as the early church fathers, argued that God loves all of humanity, and enables everyone to believe. Those that he foreknows will respond in faith he elects, while those who do not are condemned to damnation. But that condemnation is a result of a rejection of God’s grace, not an arbitrary action on God’s part. The Calvinist will argue that my choosing to accept God’s offer of grace is an action on my part, making salvation at least partly based on my own efforts. But Arminius responded that a free gift, received, is still a free gift. My accepting the gift does not in any way constitute an earning of that gift on my part.
Calvinists accuse Arminians of focusing on human free will, although they also claim to accept it after a fashion. But Arminius’ use of human free will was not to elevate humanity, but to make them responsible for their own sin, rather than making God responsible for it. Salvation is no less a work of God because I have the ability to accept or reject it.
Summary of Arminian Soteriology
As expressed earlier, Arminianism is not a complete theological system; rather it is a particular way of understanding soteriology, the doctrine of salvation. God is our creator and he loves all of those within his creation. God created man as an autonomous moral agent with the ability to make real choices, in particular the choice to obey God or to disobey him. While God knew the choices humanity would make and planned around them, he did not cause Adam and Eve to disobey and fall into sin; that was a choice that they freely made for themselves.
When our first parents disobeyed God and fell from their state of grace, they and all of their progeny lost the ability to function in the spiritual realm. No longer could we walk with God in the garden, no longer could we find him, and in fact we were no longer even able to seek or desire him. As a result of the fall we became totally unable to either desire or effect a return to God. Humanity continued on as free moral agents, doing good and bad and making free choices in the physical realm, but we were totally dead in the spiritual realm. And even worse, we faced eternal condemnation.
But man’s fall did not diminish God’s love for mankind. Our fall was anticipated before the creation. And, because of God’s love and grace, the means of reconciliation was also planned prior to the creation. This means of reconciliation had two parts. The first was in the atoning sacrifice offered by Jesus, God incarnate. Jesus’ death on the cross serves to pay the penalty for the sins of the whole world. Jesus died in the place of all who would respond in faith to him. And that leads to the second part of the means of reconciliation. In my own natural self I am not able to respond to God in faith; my fallen nature does not have that ability. But God graciously works in the lives of people to enable them to believe, freeing our depraved wills to accept the gift he offers.
God now is holding out to us the means of salvation, the sacrifice of Jesus, and giving us the ability to accept his freely offered gift. If I accept the gift I am saved and my spirit is born anew, able to seek after and to know God. If I reject the gift of salvation then I continue on toward condemnation and destruction. Only if I accept the gift of God am I delivered from that condemnation that I was born into. The gift of salvation that God offers to me is wholly and completely his work. My acceptance of his freely offered gift does not in any way make it less a gift on his part, or in any way make me worthy of it.
From creation, God has predestined that those who will, as an act of faith, accept his gift of salvation, will be adopted into his family, sharing throughout eternity in the blessings of sonship. God’s choice of us is not arbitrary, but is based on his knowledge of who would respond to him in faith, a faith that is enabled by his grace. Those who find themselves condemned have no one to blame but themselves. God’s grace enables all to believe, and Jesus’ atonement is sufficient for all. But that atonement is only applied to those who respond in faith.
The Five Solas
There are five foundational principles that come out of the Protestant reformation, principles that in many ways define what it means to be a Protestant. These principles are typically expressed as short Latin expressions: Sola Scriptura (“by Scripture alone”), Sola Gratia (“by grace alone”), Sola Fide (“by faith alone”), Solus Christus (“Christ alone”), and Soli Deo Gloria (“glory to God alone”). For the Arminian, as for all true Protestants, these truths provide structure for what we believe and practice.
- Sola Scriptura: The Scripture alone is our source for authority. While we might look to human sources in providing understanding or clarification, the Scripture alone is authoritative. Human and church tradition as well as creeds or confessions are secondary to the Scripture.
- Sola Gratia: Salvation is by grace alone. It is solely because of God’s gracious action on our part that we can be saved. God’s grace enables us to believe and respond in faith. And his grace continues to work in our lives through regeneration, sanctification, and glorification.
- Sola Fide: Salvation is also by faith alone. There is nothing we as humans can do to earn God’s favor or to make ourselves in any way acceptable to God. All who come in faith to God are regenerated.
- Solus Christus: Christ alone has done everything that is necessary for my salvation. There is nothing I can do to add to what he has done.
- Soli Deo Gloria: All glory to God alone. Because my salvation is solely a work of God, all glory for it should go to God. And all of my life should be lived in a way that will bring glory to God.
We may understand some of these solas slightly differently than other Protestants do, in particular the role of faith. But orthodox Arminians do hold firmly to these five solas and thus are firmly in the Protestant camp.
While I believe that the soteriology of Arminius is more faithful to the Scripture than that of John Calvin, or Martin Luther for that matter, and that it better represents the character of God, I also believe that Protestants of every stripe are indebted to Luther and Calvin, as well as other early reformers, for helping the church to recover the doctrines of Scripture alone and justification by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. While I have serious issues with what I see as the implications of Calvinist and Lutheran views of predestination on the character of God, I do consider them to be true believers and brothers/sisters in the faith. While at times I may have seemed antagonistic toward Calvinist doctrine, that has been primarily to illustrate the differences between the two. But I must also confess at least some irritation over the uninformed attacks of Calvinists against Arminian doctrine. I say uninformed because most of the time they are actually attacking a strawman, and not Arminian soteriology itself. Hopefully I have not been guilty of that myself. And hopefully this series of posts will help to clear up some of the misinformation that is so rampant concerning Arminian soteriology.
One last point to make. I have used the Arminian tag quite a bit during this series of posts. But Arminian is a label that only describes a particular doctrine of salvation; which happens to be the one that I believe. I believe many things that are not covered by the Arminian label. I am not really an Arminian although I do agree with Arminius concerning soteriology. I agree with John Calvin concerning many other things, although I also disagree with him on others, such as infant baptism. I don’t know of any label that captures all of my theology. In the end, I am a Christian, a follower of Jesus Christ.