Jacob Arminius’ Reformed Views on Justification

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Given Arminius’ Reformed context, he argues for the Reformed teaching of Justification by Faith alone, or sola fide. Mark Jones, writing for Reformation21, quotes Herman Witsius to the effect, “Arminius, by his subtlety, frames vain empty quibbles, when he contends that the righteousness of Christ cannot be imputed to us for righteousness …” (emphasis added), and then emphatically states: “The righteousness of Christ is not imputed to believers, according to Arminius” (link). As the reader will witness for herself below, Arminius in no uncertain words insists the contrary (emphasis added):

From the premises thus laid down according to the Scriptures, we conclude that justification, when used for the act of a Judge, is either purely the imputation of righteousness through mercy from the throne of grace in Christ the propitiation made to a sinner, but who is a believer (Rom. 1:16, 17; Gal. 3:6, 7) [the Reformed position he maintains]; or that man is justified before God, of debt, according to the rigor of justice without any forgiveness [a position he rejects].

Moreover, Arminius argues that “the formal righteousness, and that by which we are formally justified, can on no account be called ‘inherent;’ but that, according to the phrase of the Apostle, it may in an accommodated sense be denominated ‘imputed,’ as either being that which is righteousness in God’s gracious account, since it does not merit this name according to the rigor of justice or of the law, or as being the righteousness of another, that is, of Christ, which is made ours by God’s gracious imputation” (emphasis added). As stated often, and there is really no delicate manner of stating this, many Calvinists cannot be trusted with accurately representing Arminius’ theology.

For Arminius, neither deed performed nor merit considered is an appropriate framework for God justifying an individual. Doctors Keith Stanglin and Thomas McCall note that, for Arminius, faith is the “assent of the soul produced in sinners by the Holy Spirit through the gospel …, by which they acknowledge Jesus Christ as Savior destined and given to them by God.”1 Because I am a strong advocate for the reading of primary sources, below the portrait of Arminius one can read for him- or herself Arminius’ own words on the subject of justification.

The caricatures of Arminius’ theology regarding the matter of faith and justification are corrected by reading the man’s own words. Doctors Stanglin and McCall write: “Arminius is unwavering in his insistence that faith is a result of God’s grace; that is, ‘Faith is a gracious and gratuitous gift of God.’ The certainty that accompanies the assent of faith is not produced by rational argument but by a supernatural gift from God.”2 As a matter of fact, the essential element that produces a response of faith in an individual is the Holy Spirit Himself, either through the word of the Gospel, or from some Spirit-induced illumination deriving from His sole Person.3

Though Arminius is not using the exact same language as the strict Calvinists of his era, he is, however, using Reformed language, since the words Reformed and Calvinist are not synonymous. One could easily suggest that, the reason why the Calvinists of Arminius’ era were so rattled by his teachings was because he was so very much Reformed, yet he framed theological issues in such a way as to deviate from what they considered to be Reformed orthodoxy (whether supra- or infralapsarian Calvinism). Calvinist scholar Dr. Richard A. Muller very significantly and aptly notes:

Had Arminius been a biblicistic pietist promulgating a message that was stylistically and doctrinally widely divergent from and foreign to the Reformed mind of his time, he could have been ignored or at least easily dismissed. His scholastic style, however, was precisely the style characteristic of Reformed thought in his day and his modified Thomism was different from the teaching of the Reformed [especially with regard to the doctrines of election and irresistible grace] not in its Thomism but in its modification. Nor was the genuineness of Arminius’ Protestantism ever really in question.4

A controversy arose as to whether Arminius taught that one “is justified before God not on the basis of the imputed righteousness of Christ, but by the human act of believing, which constitutes his righteousness before God, and that this contradicts the Heidelberg Catechism.”5 Arminius’ response was direct: “Arminius calls the article [charge] ‘another proof of desperate and profligate negligence’ and asks who is so utterly senseless as to deny that faith is in any sense an instrument, since it receives God’s promises, including that of justification.”6 F. Stuart Clarke continues:

On the other hand, he rejects the idea that in the business of justification, faith acts only as an instrument. God is the primary cause of justification, but faith is not his instrument to justify us. It is a gift of God which the sinner uses to accept justification, and such acceptance is an act of obedience to the gospel. The question is, when faith is imputed for righteousness, is that faith an instrument or an act, and Arminius considers that Paul’s quotation of Genesis 15:6 in Romans 4:9 proves that in this context it is considered an act.7

As to the question of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness: “Arminius accepts his (Reformed) brethren’s explanation that ‘Faith is imputed for righteousness on account of Christ, the object which it apprehends,’ but this immediate apprehending of Christ is nearer to justification than is the mediate instrument by which he is apprehended.”8 Arminius writes the following on the doctrine of justification.

As frequent mention is made in Scripture of Justification, and since this doctrine is of great importance to salvation, and is in these days, not a little controverted, it seems that we shall not be acting unprofitably if we institute a disquisition [discourse, commentary] on this subject from the Scriptures.

I. Since the word “justification” is deduced from justice, from this notion its signification will be appropriately derived. Justice or righteousness, when properly considered, signifies rectitude or an agreement with right reason (Psalm 11:7; Eph. 6:14; Phil. 1:11; 1 John 3:7). And it is contemplated either as a quality or as an act — a quality inhering in a subject, an act produced by an efficient cause. The word “justification” denotes an act that is occupied either in infusing the quality of righteousness into some person or in acquiring it for him, or in forming a judgment on a person and his acts, and in pronouncing sentence on them.

II. If, therefore, according to its quality, justification be the acquisition of righteousness, it is the act of one who by repeated acts acquires a habit of righteousness, that is, the act of a rational creature (Eph. 4:24). If it be the infusion of righteousness, it is the act of Him who infuses the habit of righteousness into a rational creature, that is, the act of God either as creator or regenerator (Isa. 5:23). The justification which is occupied about a person and his acts, is the act of a Judge making an estimate in his own mind of the deed, and of the author of it, and according to that estimate, forming a judgment and pronouncing sentence, that is, the act of a man justifying the wisdom and the justice of God (Matt. 11:19; Psalm 81), of a Prince justifying the cause of his subject, of a Pharisee justifying himself (Luke 16:15), of God justifying the deed of Phinehas (Psalm 116:31), and our Lord’s justification of the conduct of the publican. (Luke 18:14).

III. From this necessary distinction of the words it appears that Bellarmine [a Roman Catholic theologian] both admits an equivocation, and feigns an adversary for himself that is not adverse to him, when he proposes the state of the controversy which exists between him and us on this doctrine in these words: “Is the righteousness by which we are formally justified, inherent or imputative?”

(1.) The equivocation lies in this — that the word “justification,” when it is occupied about inherent righteousness, signifies the infusion of righteousness; but when it is employed respecting imputative righteousness, it signifies the estimate of the mind, the judgment, and the pronouncing of the sentence.

(2.) He invents an adversary; because no one denies that the form by which any man is intrinsically righteous, and is declared to be so, is the habit or inherent quality of righteousness. But we deny that the word “justification” is received in this sense in St Paul’s disputation against the gentiles and the Jews (Rom. 2, 3, 4, 5) and against the false brethren (Gal. 2, 3, 5), or even by St James in his epistle. Wherefore, we must maintain, either that the controversy between the papists and us is respecting justification when received as the act of a judge or that our controversy has nothing in common with that of St Paul (James 2).

IV. The justification, therefore, of a man before God is that by which, when he is placed before the tribunal of God, he is considered and pronounced, by God as a judge, righteous and worthy of the reward of righteousness; whence also the recompense of reward itself follows by necessity of consequence (Rom. 2, 3; Luke 18:14). But since three things come under consideration in this place — man who is to be judged, God the judge, and the law according to which judgment must be passed — each of them may be variously considered, and it is also necessary, according to these three to vary justification itself.

(1.) For man may be considered either as having discharged the works of righteousness without sin (Rom. 2:16) or as a sinner (Rom. 3:23).

(2.) God may be viewed as seated on a throne of rigid and severe justice (Psalm 143:2), or on a throne of grace and mercy. (Heb. 4:16)

(3.) The law is either that of works, or that of faith (Rom. 3:27); and since each of these has a natural correspondence together and mutually agree with each other, justification may be reduced to two opposite species or forms; of which the one is called that “of the law, in the law, or through the law, of the works of the law, of him that worketh and performs the law, of debt and not of grace” (Rom. 2, 3, 4, 9, 11). But the other is styled that “of faith, from faith, through faith, of a sinner who believes, freely bestowed, of grace and not of debt, and without the works of the law” (Gal. 2, 3, 5).

V. But since the law is two-fold, of which mention is made in the question of justification, that is, the moral and the ceremonial (for the judicial part of the law does not in this place come under discussion), we must see how and in what sense justification is either attributed to each of them or taken away from it.

(1.) Justification is ascribed to the Moral Law because the works prescribed are of and in themselves pleasing to God, and are righteousness itself strictly and rigidly taken, so that he who does them is on that very account righteous, without absolution or gratuitous imputation. For this reason justification cannot be taken away from it, unless for its non-performance (1 Sam. 15:21, 22; Amos 5:21-23; Rom. 10:5). Hence justification by the moral law may be defined: “It is that by which a man, having performed the duties of the moral law without transgression, and being placed before the tribunal of the severe justice of God, is accounted and declared by God to be righteous and worthy of the reward of eternal life, in himself, of debt, according to the law, and without grace, to his own salvation, and to the glory both of divine and human righteousness” (Rom. 4:4; 3:27; Eph. 2:8, 9).


(2.) But the rule of the Ceremonial law is widely different. For its works are neither of themselves pleasing to God, to enable them to come under the name of righteousness; nor have they such a consideration that absolution from sins committed against the moral law can be obtained through them, or that they can be graciously imputed for righteousness (Micah 6:6-8; Col. 2:16, 20, 21). For this reason, in the Scriptures, justification is taken away from it, not because it was not performed, but simply on account of the weakness of itself, and not of the flesh which sinned. (Acts 13:39; Heb. 9:10) Yet its use for justification is two-fold according to its double reference to the moral law and the offenses committed against it, and to Christ and faith in Him. According to the former, it is the hand-writing recording debts and sins (Col. 2:14-17). According to the latter, it contains a shadow and type of Christ, and of “good things to come,” that is, of righteousness and life (Heb. 10:1). According to the latter, it showed Christ typically (Gal. 2:16); according to the former, it compelled men to flee to Him, through faith in him. (Gal. 3:21-24)

VII. And this is the cause why the Apostle Paul takes away justification together and at once from the whole law, though for different causes which it is not always necessary to enumerate (Rom. 3:20, 28; Gal. 2:16; John 5:24; Psalm 143:2; Rom. 3, 4). But justification is attributed to faith, not because it is that very righteousness which can be opposed to the rigid and severe judgment of God, though it is pleasing to God; but because, through the judgment of mercy triumphing over justice, it obtains absolution from sins, and is graciously imputed for righteousness (Acts 13:39).

The cause of this is not only God who is both just and merciful but also Christ by his obedience, offering, and intercession according to God through his good pleasure and command. But it may be thus defined, “it is a justification by which a man, who is a sinner, yet a believer [as Luther himself agreed], being placed before the throne of grace which is erected in Christ Jesus the Propitiation, is accounted and pronounced by God, the just and merciful Judge, righteous and worthy of the reward of righteousness, not in himself but in Christ, of grace, according to the gospel, to the praise of the righteousness and grace of God, and to the salvation of the justified person himself” (Rom. 3, 4, 5, 10, 11).

VIII. It belongs to these two forms of justification, when considered in union and in opposition. First. To be so adverse as to render it impossible for both of them at once to meet together in one subject. For he who is justified by the law, neither is capable nor requires to be justified by faith (Rom. 4:14, 15); and it is evident that the man who is justified by faith could not have been justified by the law (Rom. 11:6). Thus the law previously excludes faith by the cause, and faith excludes the law by the consequence of conclusion.

Secondly. They cannot be reconciled with each other, either by an unconfused union, or by admixture. For they are perfect simple forms, and separated in an individual point, so that by the addition of a single atom, a transition is made from the one to the other (Rom. 4:4,5; 9:30-32). Thirdly. Because a man must be justified by the one or the other of them, otherwise he will fall from righteousness and therefore from life (Rom. 10:3-6, Gal. 3:10James 2:10). Because the gospel is the last revelation; “for therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith;” and, after this, no other revelation must be expected (Heb. 1:1).

IX. From the premises thus laid down according to the Scriptures, we conclude that justification, when used for the act of a Judge, is either purely the imputation of righteousness through mercy from the throne of grace in Christ the propitiation made to a sinner, but who is a believer (Rom. 1:16, 17; Gal. 3:6, 7); or that man is justified before God, of debt, according to the rigor of justice without any forgiveness (Rom. 3, 4). Because the Papists deny the latter, they ought to concede the former. [emphasis added]

And this is such a truth, that, how high soever may be the endowments of any one of the Saints in faith, hope and charity, and however numerous and excellent the works of faith, hope and charity may be which he has performed, he will receive no sentence of justification from God the Judge, unless He quit the tribunal of his severe justice and ascend the throne of grace, and from it pronounce a sentence of absolution in his favor, and unless the Lord of His mercy and pity graciously account for righteousness the whole of that good with which the saint appears before Him. For, woe to a life of the utmost innocency, if it be judged without mercy (Psalm 32:1, 2, 5, 6; 143:2; 1 John 1:7-10; 1 Cor. 4:4). This is a confession which even the Papists seem to make when they assert that the works of the Saints cannot stand before the judgment of God unless they be sprinkled with the blood of Christ.

X. Hence we likewise deduce: That if the righteousness by which we are justified before God, the Judge, can be called formal, or that by which we are formally justified (for the latter is Bellarmine’s phraseology), then the formal righteousness, and that by which we are formally justified, can on no account be called “inherent;” but that, according to the phrase of the Apostle, it may in an accommodated sense be denominated “imputed,” as either being that which is righteousness in God’s gracious account, since it does not merit this name according to the rigor of justice or of the law, or as being the righteousness of another, that is, of Christ, which is made ours by God’s gracious imputation. [emphasis added]

Nor is there any reason why they should be so abhorrent from the use of this word, “imputed,” since the apostle employs the same word eleven times in the fourth chapter of his Epistle to the Romans, where the seat of this point or argument lies, and since the efficacy to salvation of God’s gracious estimation is the same, as that of His severe and rigid estimation would be if man had perfectly fulfilled the law without any transgression (2 Cor. 5:19, 21).

XI. And though Bellarmine, by confounding the word “justification,” by distinguishing faith into that which is formed and unformed, by making a difference between the works of the law, and those performed by renewed persons through the virtue of the Holy Spirit, and by not ascribing a reward even to these works, unless because it has been promised gratuitously, and promised to those who are already placed in a state of grace and of the adoption of sons, by which he confesses they have likewise a right to the heavenly inheritance, by granting besides, that the reward itself exceeds the worthiness of the work, and by bringing down to a rigid examination the whole life of the man who is to be judged, though by these methods Bellarmine endeavors to explain the sentiments of the Romish Church so as to make them appear in unison with those of the apostle (or, at least, that they may not openly clash with those of St Paul).

Yet, since the Church of Rome asserts, that the good works of the Saints fully satisfy the law of God according to the state of this life, and really merit eternal life; that when we suffer for sins by rendering satisfaction, we are made conformable to Christ Jesus who gave satisfaction for sins; and that the works of the Saints, prayer, fasting, alms-giving, and others, are satisfactory [to divine justice] for temporal punishment, indeed for every punishment, and, what is more, for guilt itself, and are thus expiatory for sins; since she declares that the sacrifice of the mass is a propitiation for the sins and punishments both of the living and the dead; and since she says that the works of some men are supererogatory, and extols them so much as to affirm that they are useful to others for salvation; since these are the assertions of the Church of Rome, we declare that her doctrine stands directly opposed to that of the apostle.9


1 Keith D. Stanglin and Thomas H. McCall, Jacob Arminius: Theologian of Grace (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 165.

2 Ibid., 166.

3 Ibid., 165. Cf. also Jacob Arminius, “Apology against Thirty-One Theological Articles: Article XVIII,” in The Works of Arminius, the London edition, three volumes, trans. James and William Nichols (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1996), 2:20-22.

4 Richard A. Muller, God, Creation, and Providence in the Thought of Jacob Arminius: Sources and Directions of Scholastic Protestantism in the Era of Early Orthodoxy (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1991), 275.

5 F. Stuart Clarke: The Ground of Election: Jacobus Arminius’ Doctrine of the Work and Person of Christ (Waynesboro: Paternoster, 2006), 103.

6 Ibid.

7 Ibid.

8 Ibid.

9 Jacob Arminius, “Twenty-Five Public Disputations: Disputation XIX. On the Justification of Man Before God,” in The Works of Arminius, the London edition, three volumes, trans. James and William Nichols (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1996), 2:253-58.