Setting the Record Straight: The Current State of Reformation Arminianism (Part Three of Three Parts)

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R. C. Sproul, in his Willing to Believe, notes:

    Repeatedly the Synod of Dort charges the Remonstrants with teaching the doctrines of Pelagianism. Is not this charge overly severe and unfair? Both Arminius and the Remonstrants sought to distance themselves from pure Pelagianism.

    Arminianism is often said to be semi-Pelagian, but not, strictly speaking, Pelagian. What the fathers of Dort probably had in mind is the link between semi-Pelagianism and Pelagianism that renders the semi-Pelagian unable to escape the fundamental thesis of Pelagianism.1

But are the “fathers of Dort” right in their estimation? Is there a link between semi-Pelagianism and Arminianism? Though we agree with the Dortians that the “link between semi-Pelagianism and Pelagianism . . . renders the semi-Pelagian unable to escape the fundamental thesis of Pelagianism,” we will witness a rather glaring, broken link between semi-Pelagianism and Arminianism below.

The charge of semi-Pelagianism has been hanging over the Arminians’ head since Dort (1618-1619), when strict supralapsarian Calvinists condemned Arminianism as heresy. Simply put: if there were no difference between Arminianism and semi-Pelagianism, then there would not be two separate names and two separate systems of thought. The following brief thesis statements have been presented before:

Pelagianism: That man possesses free will even after the fall (as experienced in the Garden), so that people may freely choose Christ Jesus as Savior whenever they want, having experienced no effect of original sin.

Semi-Pelagianism: That man, though corrupt, retains free will, so that people may choose Christ Jesus as Savior apart from God’s prevenient grace. When man initiates, God responds.

Arminianism: That mankind has no free will to choose Christ Jesus as Savior except when Graced by God, being dead in sins.

Calvinism: That mankind has no free will to choose Christ Jesus as Savior except if Elected (and Regenerated) by God, being dead in sins.

These are four separate systems of thought on the matter of humanity’s free will. Pelagianism and Semi-Pelagianism have an overlapping theme: the retention or restoration of free will by God so that people may choose Christ Jesus as Savior whenever they desire apart from God’s prevenient grace. Arminianism and Calvinism also have an overlapping theme: that humanity has no free will to choose Christ Jesus as Savior unless God graciously intervenes.

Thus Arminianism has more in common with Calvinism than it does with semi-Pelagianism. Yet the insults and semi-Pelagian epithets continue up to the present day. But why is this? The Calvinist’s contention with the Arminian is his conception of prevenient grace. Sproul notes:

    If prevenient grace always enables the sinner to assent to grace, then Arminius’s view is monergistic in this regard. For Arminius prevenient grace seems to be irresistible to the degree that it effectively liberates the sinner from his moral bondage or impotency.

    Prior to receiving prevenient grace, man is dead and utterly unable to choose the good. After receiving this grace, the sinner is able to do what he was previously unable to do. In this sense, prevenient grace is monergistic and irresistible. But what Arminius calls the inward vocation or call of God is neither monergistic nor irresistible. . . .

    Prevenient grace, then, makes man able to assent to Christ but not necessarily willing. The sinner is now able to will, but he is not yet willing to do so. The ability to will is the result of a monergistic, irresistible work of the Holy Spirit, but the actual willing is the synergistic work of the sinner cooperating with God’s prevenient grace. Giving grace is the work of God alone; assenting to it is the work of man, who now has the power to cooperate or not cooperate with it.2

What Sproul finds troubling is how an unregenerate sinner can “will himself” to believe. This is a typical response from an Edwardsian Calvinist. Still, I find his notion of “willing oneself” to believe to be a bit left of center to what the Arminian actually believes. We confess that even the willing to believe is an enablement of God, even if the one thus enabled does not comply with God’s Spirit.

The Westminster Larger Catechism asks:

    What doth God require of us that we may escape his wrath and curse due to us by reason of the transgression of the law?” To which the following answer was provided. “That we may escape the wrath and curse of God due to us by reason of the transgression of the law, he requireth of us repentance toward God, and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ, and the diligent use of the outward means whereby Christ communicates to us the benefits of his mediation (emphasis added).3

I am assuming that from their perspective the “us” refers to “the elect.” And yet it was not the elect only who were under God’s wrath. The commentary notes, “Because of God’s great love, which led him, even in eternity before the creation of the world, to decree a plan of salvation by means of which his elect would in due time be redeemed and saved from their sin”4 (emphases added).

But when the elect actually repents, having been elected by God from before the creation of the world, how does he or she do so? The commentary answers, “We are to take advantage of this way of escape by complying with God’s revealed requirements concerning it, which are outlined in the catechism as including (a) repentance toward God; (b) faith in Jesus Christ; (c) diligent use of appointed outward means”5 (emphasis added).

You mean the elect must actually do something? You mean they must “comply with God’s revealed requirements”? This sounds like Arminian teaching! But is that not robbing God of his glory and sovereignty? Is that not man-centered? Is that not a work? Furthermore, how is all of this accomplished? The answer given is the exact same one offered by Arminians: grace.

The commentary states, “God has chosen to appoint these outward means of grace . . . as instruments by which the benefits of Christ’s saving work are communicated to us. These means of themselves cannot save us; it is only Christ that can save us; but he makes use of these appointed means. Therefore if we would have Christ and make sure of an interest in him, we must be diligent in our use of the appointed means“6 (emphasis added).

Like I mentioned above: Reformed Arminianism has much more in common with Calvinism than it does with semi-Pelagianism, and Calvinists would know this if they even attempted to invest a little time getting to know the writings of Arminius and the Remonstrants, and noting the agreements in their system with the core or essence of Reformed thought.

We call ourselves Reformed (or Classical) Arminians because we stand in the Reformed tradition. Though we disagree with some of the particulars, we certainly agree with the core elements of the Reformation. Salvation comes sola gratia, sola fide, solus Christus, soli Deo gloria (by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, to the glory of God alone). This is the current state of Reformed Arminianism.

1 R. C. Sproul, Willing to Believe (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1997), 140.

2 Ibid., 131-132.

3 Johannes G. Vos, The Westminster Larger Catechism: A Commentary, ed. G. I. Williamson (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, 2002), 431.

4 Ibid.

5 Ibid., 432.

6 Ibid.