How does your perception of what is and is not Arminian theology dovetail into the following true story that relates to mans’ sin nature?
- The great Wesley scholar, Albert Outler was once giving a lecture on original sin in which he was trying to explain the debate between Augustine and Pelagius. A very angry student (who Outler termed as a “West Texas Pelagian”) stormed into his office and said, “Look, if what you’re saying is right and we don’t have the natural ability simply to choose between right and wrong, then God help us!”
Outler replied, “That’s exactly what I’ve been trying to help you to see! We can’t do it on our own, so we need God’s help. You’ve betrayed yourself into orthodoxy!”
I’ll put the basics of Outler’s argument into a syllogism:
- 1) If people were naturally good, then they would naturally be able to fellowship with God.
- 2) But people cannot naturally fellowship with God, they are in need of a Mediator between our Lord and ourselves.
- Therefore, people are not naturally good and are in need of our Lord’s grace and mercy.
It’s a classic modus tullens.
- If P, then Q
- not Q
- Therefore, not P
The depravity of man is established and upheld within Arminian theology and man cannot simply “choose salvation.”
When we start talking about our “Lord sovereignly saving” (let’s talk about our the Lord our God in the second person and not in the third person—it keeps the conversation personal and His Spirit involved in our discussions) we are talking about our Lord’s ordering of decrees. Popularly, you’ve probably heard Arminians say that our Lord first chose Christ and then elected two groups: Those who repent and believe and those who do not repent and believe from the foundation. In essence what these Arminians are talking about is our Lord’s decrees. After these two decrees comes further decrees that bring election and reprobation down to an individual level.
In essence, Arminian thought claims a higher Christology than that of Calvinist thought. The idea for this claim is found within the ordering of decrees. Calvinist theology holds that election is based upon nothing found in man or in Christ. “The electing love of God precedes the sending of the Son” (Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology, 1949, p. 114). This then makes Christ’s atonement consequent to the election of man.
In contrast, Arminian election is said to be Christocentric. This is because Christ is the foundation and focus of election—Christ is the elect. Indeed, our Lord Jesus Christ is not only the foundation upon which all other decrees are based, but is also the foundation upon which all decrees are executed—in contrast to Calvinist theology that begins its ordo salutis with the election of man and then the decree to save man through Christ thereby subordinating Christ’s atonement to man’s election. In contrast to Calvinist theology, in Arminian theology relative to salvation, the decrees begin with the appointment of
(1) Christ as Mediator and Savior.
(2) Decree to save those who repent and believe.
- (a) in and through Christ to effect salvation of believers.
- (b) to leave in sin and under condemnation unbelievers
(3) Decree to administer the means of repentance and faith in a manner appropriate with divine justice and wisdom.
(4) Decree to save or damn particular persons according to the knowledge of who does (or will) believe or doesn’t believe and persevere in faith through grace (Robert Picirilli, Grace, Faith, Free Will: Contrasting Views of Salvation, Randall House: TN).
In effect what we have is a conditional election because Arminians argue that our Lord has sovereignly decreed that salvation be conditional upon faith and that man cannot have saving faith from himself, rather, saving faith is said to be imputed into the saint by our Lord’s own hand (displacing any claim Arminian theology is “man-centered”). This is what the first article presented by the Remonstrants at the Synod of Dort said. It essentially says that Arminians accept predestination as including both the election to salvation and reprobation to condemnation, but it puts these decrees after mankind’s voluntary fall to sin, and it makes both of these decrees conditional upon the faith or unbelief of the individuals who are the objects of election or reprobation and this is in opposition to the Calvinistic view of unconditional election. Points to consider:
1) Within Calvinist theology, common grace is given to all with the goal of sustaining the good, but never with salvation in mind. Only effectual grace has the goal of justification in view. Hence, within Calvinist theology there are different kinds of grace. As such, to the Arminian mind, the Calvinist apologist must make a case from the Bible that different kinds of grace do indeed abound and the Arminian apologist needs to set forth that there is but one kind of grace that operates within differing modes.
2) Within Arminian thought, there is only one kind of grace which is said to go before, or, operate ahead of, (hence the term “prevenient”) that enables all good and righteous acts and thoughts, thereby providing to our Lord all the glory of such acts and thoughts—for it is His doing. Ultimately within Arminians thought, prevenient grace has the goal of sanctification but its more immediate goal is justification and these two different goals can be thought of as simply modes of operation by the same kind of grace that always goes before encouraging and enabling. Within the Arminian system of thought, prevenient grace is said to be offered to all. In this sense, prevenient grace is irresistible because the offer of grace to all cannot be denied. Nevertheless, because prevenient grace has justification and sanctification in view and not all are justified and neither is sanctification ever complete or perfect even for the most holiest of saints, prevenient grace is also said to be resistible in both its justification and sanctification modes of operation. Positively, in acceptance, prevenient grace is said to be passive and negatively, in rejection, the heart is said to be active—a volitional stand against God and the willful suppression of truth (cf. Paul’s argument in Romans 1*). Consequently, arguments against prevenient grace that hold as a premise that the human will is the basis of salvation, are simply in error—although they are very common. So common that I’ll state it again: arguments against freewill are not addressing Arminian theology. The only people who give a hoot about freewill are under-informed laypersons, philosophers, and Calvinist apologists who believe they are addressing Arminian soteriology in a meaningful way when they talk about free will but are, in fact, not addressing Arminian soteriology because Arminian soteriology is based upon how grace is thought to work and not how the human will is thought to work.
3) In Calvinist thought, one must be regenerated before being able to exercise faith. This prompts a question: is regeneration by grace and is this grace not “going before”? Remember prevenient simply means “going before.”
Furthermore, as stated above, to the Arminian mind there is an inner ambiguity within Calvinist thought that says, in effect, there are different kinds of grace. Some kinds of grace are resistible and some kinds are not. This is clearly illustrated when we consider that the elect may not resist saving grace, but for some reason they can resist sanctifying grace. Herein we have two different kinds of grace within the same individual. As an additional note: in all the Reformed systematics I have read, I have never heard of a Calvinist thinker argue that even common grace is resistible. This is one area I would like to confirm from those who have conducted similar surveys because if true, if the Calvinist scheme of grace is never resistible, howbeit that sanctification is resistible? I’m wide open for folks to share and teach me.
Ultimately, Arminian thinkers hold that Calvinist apologists need to first build an argument of differing kinds of grace from the discipline of biblical theology before assuming differing kinds of grace that operate differently depending upon the situation and they need to do this as an a priori before basing other arguments upon it—especially so when Calvinist apologists seek to prove other points supported by this premise to Arminians who will, in turn, reject these arguments because of the unproven premise.
In contrast to Calvinist thought, in Arminian thought grace is said to always be going before. In point of fact, grace is said to always operate preveniently: it is going before we are justified drawing and empowering our faith. Following justification, grace continues to move preveniently, preparing the way for “righteous responses”** to and with our acts of faith, generating elements and fore-tastes of God’s perfection within us. When we “improve” upon grace, it moves on ahead, preveniently improving us still further toward the glory which our Lord has for us. In every act of grace, our Lord’s action is first, our faith is responsitory.
Therefore, in so far as grace is concerned, Arminian thought has a unifying principle as to how grace always operates.
* Romans 1 teaches us that all people possess some knowledge of God because our Lord has shown it to them—however imperfectly that knowledge shown to all people is understood (Rom. 1:18-19). That’s why, according to Paul, people are condemned because they reject the truth in their unrighteousness. Two things to note about this rejection: The first is that knowledge of the truth doesn’t mean salvation. We are saved by a person who we have a personal relationship with. We are not saved by our intellectual apprehension. The second is that rejection is a summary term. Some ignore the truth, some actively campaign against the truth, some remain jaded and anesthetize themselves from the truth through their own carelessness.
** In Romans 5-8 it has been noted that Paul lists fifteen “righteous responses” that come from hearing and believing the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. “These include boasting in hope, tribulation and God (5:2, 3, 11); demonstrating love for God (5:5), reigning in life (5:17b), walking in newness of life (6:4), being ashamed now in regard to past sin (6:21), producing fruit leading to sanctification (6:22), bearing fruit to God (7:4), serving in newness of the Spirit (7:6), walking according to the Spirit (8:4), minding the things of the Spirit (8:5), being led by the Spirit (8:14), praying for God’s help (8:15), groaning for bodily redemption (8:23), expressing love for God (8:28), and being conformed to the image of Christ (Rom. 8:29)” (Jonathan Pratt, “The Relationship Between Sanctification and Justification in Romans 5-8,” unpublished paper, p. 10).